Ag organizations have moved to support Smithfield Foods in its bid to have a judge’s gag order lifted, in the wake of a third jury verdict finding a Smithfield-related hog farm responsible for excessive odors and property value damage due to hog waste.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation collaborated on a brief filed in U.S. District Court in North Carolina, saying the gag order has a “chilling effect” on agricultural producers’ First Amendment rights.

The National Pork Producers Council and the North Carolina Pork Council also have filed a brief in support of lifting the gag order, asking that the court grant Murphy-Brown’s petition to vacate the “prior restraint on speech, noting that ‘all but the most carefully crafted, narrow gag orders are unconstitutional,’ ” they said in a news release.

The gag order, issued by U.S. District Judge Earl Britt in July, prohibits anyone associated with any of two dozen similar nuisance cases filed in North Carolina from speaking with reporters for as long as the cases are under way. That is likely to be years yet. Neither side in the case had asked for such an order.

“Even though their law-abiding farms have been branded a ‘nuisance’ by trial lawyers seeking multimillion-dollar verdicts from urban juries, the farmers and their neighbors are barred from publicly discussing the conditions and practices on the farms and the devastating effects of the lawsuits on their rural communities,” the farm bureaus said.

While the suits name only Murphy-Brown LLC, a hog production unit of Smithfield, as a defendant, most of the actual farms are independently owned family farms, which stand to lose their contracts and potentially their livelihoods as a result of the litigation, the farm bureau’s brief says.

According to the brief, “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 NCFBF’s] associational and expressive activities in clear and troubling ways,” and, unless overturned, “it will continue to do so for years to come.”

The pork organizations argued that there is no compelling need for the gag order; that the district court did not consider alternatives to the order, including the jury selection process or jury instructions; that the order is overbroad and vague, and 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,” they said.