|The National Pork Producers Council and the North Carolina Pork Council Monday evening filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of lifting a judge’s gag order on communications related to nuisance lawsuits filed against more than two dozen North Carolina hog farms.
Judge Earl Britt, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, in late June imposed the gag order on the parties, lawyers and potential witnesses in lawsuits brought against Murphy-Brown, the hog production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. The judge said a “significant increase in trial publicity” and the “volume and scope of prejudicial publicity” about the first two cases – one decided in early May and the other two days after the gag order was implemented – could taint future jurors.
NPPC and NCPC filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., asking that it grant Murphy-Brown’s petition to vacate the District Court’s prior restraint on speech, noting that “All but the most carefully crafted, narrow gag orders are unconstitutional.”
The pork organizations argued that there is no compelling need for the gag order, the District Court did not consider alternatives to the order – including the jury selection process or jury instructions – the order is overbroad and vague, and it won’t be effective. On the latter point, they said it’s “not reasonable to think that any gag order will reduce coverage of these cases or blunt the public’s interest” in them.
In fact, there has been extensive coverage of the lawsuits from media outlets in the state and around the country and from advocacy groups and people outside the scope of the gag order.
“The greatest risk of [jury] prejudice,” NPPC and NCPC argued, “isn’t the existence of publicity; it is the existence of one-sided publicity that has resulted from the gag order. …”
“As we pointed out in our friend-of-the-court brief, this gag order has had a chilling effect on all hog farmers in North Carolina,” said NPPC President Jim Heimerl, a pork producer from Ohio. “As potential witnesses, they’re prohibited from saying anything about or defending their operations, while those opposed to hog farming are free to attack those farmers in the press.”
In three of the nuisance cases decided over the past three months, including one last week, juries have levied a combined $99 million in compensatory and punitive damages against family farmers over noise and odors from their hog farms. A total of 26 lawsuits have been filed.