First Amendment

State law criminalizing derogatory campaign speech is likely unconstitutional, 4th Circuit rules

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A federal appeals court has ruled that a law that bans derogatory speech about political candidates is likely unconstitutional, providing a win for Democratic North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Richmond, Virginia, ruled Wednesday for Stein, who hopes to avoid prosecution for an ad that said his 2020 opponent had left “1,500 rape kits on a shelf, leaving rapists on the streets.”

Publications covering the ruling include Law360, the Associated Press, Politico and

The North Carolina law makes it a misdemeanor to publish or circulate “derogatory reports” about political candidates “knowing such report to be false or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity, when such report is calculated, or intended to affect the chances of such candidate for nomination or election.”

The 4th Circuit said the law likely violates the First Amendment for two reasons.

First, the appeals court said, the law appears to criminalize truthful derogatory statements.

“Under this law, prosecutors need never show—or even allege—a ‘derogatory’ statement was false so long as they contend the speaker acted with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity,” the appeals court said.

That violates the First Amendment, according to the 4th Circuit.

Second, even if the act reaches only false statements, it applies only to political candidates in a primary or an election and only to derogatory statements that are intended to affect a candidate’s chances. That is an impermissible content-based distinction, the appeals court said.

“Under this statute, speakers may lie with impunity about businesspeople, celebrities, purely private citizens or even government officials, so long as the victim is not currently a ‘candidate in any primary or election.’ That is textbook content discrimination,” the appeals court said.

Judge Toby J. Heytens, an appointee of President Joe Biden, wrote the Feb. 8 opinion for the court.

The case is Grimmett v. Freeman.

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