The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District in late October struck down a gag order related to North Carolina hog farm nuisance lawsuits brought against Murphy-Brown, the hog production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. The court said the gag order, which prohibited lawyers or anyone with knowledge of conditions of North Carolina hog operations from sharing information, violated the First Amendment.
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 the lawsuits. Britt 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. (More than a dozen nuisance suits were filed.) The National Pork Producers Council and the North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) in August filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of lifting the gag order.
NPPC and NCPC 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. The appeals court issued its decision even though the District Court judge lifted the gag order Aug. 31.