Judge Lifts Gag Order in North Carolina Nuisance Suits

Late last week, U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt lifted a gag order on communications related to nuisance lawsuits filed against more than two dozen North Carolina hogs farms.

The judge issued the gag order in late June as the second nuisance trial was wrapping up. He imposed it on the parties, lawyers and potential witnesses in the lawsuits. 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 cases.

Britt lifted the order before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., could rule on a petition to overturn and vacate it.

In early August, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and the North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Court of Appeals, asking it to overrule the District Court’s prior restraint on speech, noting that, “All but the most carefully crafted, narrow gag orders are unconstitutional.”

NPPC and NCPC argued that there is no compelling need for the gag order. In addition, 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.