Farm Groups: Lift NC Gag Order

AFBF, NC Farm Bureau Challenge Gag Order in North Carolina Hog Farm Cases

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Several groups are seeking to overturn a federal judge's gag order that prevents North Carolina hog producers from discussing production practices related to nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC. (DTN file photo)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- A federal judge's gag order against hog farmers and others tied to nuisance lawsuits prevents those with the most knowledge of the farming practices from talking about the impact the lawsuits have on their livelihoods, lawyers for the American Farm Bureau Federation and North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation wrote in a court brief filed in a federal appeals court Monday.

Farm Bureau groups argue the farmers whose livelihoods are most at risk cannot tell their stories to the press.

The gag order is related to civil litigation tied to at least three verdicts against Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Last week, a jury in North Carolina awarded six plaintiffs $473.5 million, the largest of the cases against the Smithfield subsidiary, for living conditions neighbors of Murphy-Brown hog farms claim they endure by living near the operations. Any final awards in the cases will likely still be capped because of a North Carolina law limiting awards in such cases.

The brief was filed in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to return the gag order back to the Eastern District Court for North Carolina. The brief was filed in support of others who have petitioned the court to lift the gag order.

The cases have increasingly drawn more attention, but a federal judge issued a gag order in late June to restrict the farmers and plaintiffs from discussing the cases. American Farm Bureau Federation and its North Carolina affiliate argue the gag order violates the farmers' First Amendment rights.

As the two groups noted in their brief and in a statement, farmers and neighbors are being barred from speaking while trial lawyers have "actively solicited hundreds of plaintiffs" to assert nuisance violations and the number of plaintiffs and cases continues to grow. The Farm Bureau groups state the people hurt most in the lawsuits are independent hog farmers who could lose their contracts and livelihoods as a result of the cases.

"The best-informed people to speak about the farms and communities affected by these lawsuits are the member-farmers who are themselves in the crosshairs, along with their spouses, children, extended family, friends and neighbors," the Farm Bureau brief said. "These people know better than anyone the stakes at issue in nuisance lawsuits, the damage they inflict on rural communities, the toll they take on farm families, and the most effective (and ineffective) strategies for dealing with them in and out of the courtroom."

The brief filed by the Farm Bureau groups said the gag order is failing because the people most affected can't speak, but "slanted media coverage has continued unabated."

The gag order also affects both the American Farm Bureau and North Carolina Farm Bureau from advocating for their members, the groups stated. "Neither AFBF nor NCFBF will be able to effectively educate its members on these issues, or effectively advocate for legislative solutions to lawsuit abuse aimed at responsible livestock farms, if it cannot hear and disseminate the words of its own members who have personally experienced these suits." For these reasons, the gag order "is stifling [AFBF's and NCFB's] associational and expressive activities in clear and troubling ways," and unless overturned, "it will continue to do so for years to come."

Even as the latest jury award was handed down last week, leaders in the National Pork Producers Council held a forum last week in North Carolina with several congressmen and senators seeking some federal legislative solution to prevent the lawsuits from continuing to stack up against the pork industry in North Carolina.

According to the USDA Hogs and Pigs inventory report in late June, North Carolina remains the second-largest hog-producing state with 8.9 million total head, a distant second behind Iowa. Still, among the top-producing pork states, North Carolina's hog population declined 3% from a year earlier even though production grew in other pork-industry states.

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Chris Clayton