An appeals court struck down the gag order put into effect by the trial judge in the North Carolina hog nuisance lawsuits because it violated the First Amendment. The court granted defendant Murphy-Brown’s request to strike down the gag order. The three-judge panel said in its ruling that the gag order “had an unacceptable and chilling effect” on free speech. The gag order had prevented Murphy-Brown, the hog production unit for Smithfield Foods, from responding to attacks on the way it does business, as well as its public policy involvement.
The appeals court ruling says the gag order had already inflicted serious harm on parties, advocates, and potential witnesses alike. “It muted political engagement on a public issue of great public and private consequence,” the written ruling says. “It’s hamstrung the exercise of First Amendment rights. Even in short doses, these practices are always harmful to the First Amendment.” The appeals court ruling comes as Murphy-Brown and attorneys for 500 plaintiffs are in mediation. Both sides have asked the trial judge to certify the first three cases so Smithfield can take it to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.