Judge Says Twitter Immune from Devin Nunes Defamation Lawsuit

Nunes encourages shift to Twitter rival Parler after the decision
June 26, 2020 Updated: June 26, 2020

A Virginia judge determined that Twitter is immune from a defamation and negligence suit that House Intelligence Ranking Member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) filed against the social media platform.

Nunes in March 2019 sued Twitter and several Twitter users, seeking damages of at least $250 million, over Twitter posts he deemed abusive, hateful and defamatory and part of what he alleged was an orchestrated defamation campaign on his reputation. The Twitter posts were made by parody Twitter accounts pretending to be Nunes’s mother and Nunes’s cow, as well as a real account for Liz Mair, a former Republican campaign communication strategist who runs communications and opposition research outfit Mair Strategies.

The lawsuit argued that Twitter’s actions reached a point where it should be treated as a publisher liable for user-submitted content. Nunes also alleged insulting words and civil conspiracy, which are violations under Virginia law.

Judge John Marshall of the Henrico County Circuit Court ruled on Wednesday that Twitter is not a content provider, and that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives Twitter immunity from both defamation and negligence claims in the suit.

“Plaintiff seeks to have the court treat Twitter as the publisher or speaker of the content provided by others based on its allowing or not allowing certain content to be on its internet platform.” Marshal said in his ruling (pdf). “The court refuses to do so,” he added, citing a prior court ruling for his decision.

Marshall also dismissed Nunes’s allegation that “Twitter has a bias towards a point of view and that bias is so extreme that it governs its decisions regarding content that is allowed on its internet platform and that course of conduct makes it a content provider.”

Publishers can be held liable for any content they post, while social media platforms are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Following the ruling, Nunes on Wednesday encouraged fellow Twitter users to open up an account on Parler, a social media platform regarded as a rival to Twitter.

Sharing a photo from Parler in a Twitter post, Nunes wrote, “Picture for those who remain in Twitter Hell. Parler is open for business!” He later added in another Twitter post, “Come to Parler to see UNFILTERED news!” He has since continued to post on Twitter showing his support for Parler.

Twitter spokesperson Catherine Hill said in a statement following Marshall’s ruling that “Twitter strongly believes the court made the right decision” to dismiss Nunes’s claims.

“Twitter enforces the Twitter Rules impartially for everyone who uses our service around the world, regardless of their background or political affiliation,” the spokesperson added.

While Nunes’s case against Twitter has been dismissed, the Republican Rep. can still pursue legal action against the other Twitter users.

But Twitter has refused to identify the people behind the two parody Twitter accounts, and Nunes’s attorney Steven Biss said that he and his client are “at a dead end,” after Marshall opined that Twitter is not obligated to release the identities. Biss said that he could not serve them with lawsuits without knowing their identities. One of the parody Twitter accounts @DevinNunesMom has since been suspended while the other account @DevinCow remains active.

Meanwhile, Mair said that Marshall’s latest decision did not change that Nunes is suing her. Her Twitter account, @LizMair, remains active.

In a statement to Newsweek, Mair said, “Without having read what the judge has reportedly issued, I will just say that from my standpoint this lawsuit and the other in which I am also being sued by Rep. Nunes—for a combined total of $400 million—remains an assault on the First Amendment and the core American principle of free speech.”

President Trump Issues Executive Order Against Social Media Companies
President Donald Trump makes remarks before signing an executive order in the Oval Office that can potentially punish Facebook, Google, and Twitter for the way they police content online, on May 28, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump in late May signed an executive order to crack down on what he described was censorship by social media sites.

The order calls for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create regulation that could strip social media companies of protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act if they “engage in deceptive or pretextual censorship.”

“Social media companies should not receive liability protections when they act as editors of content on their platform or take down lawful speech based on politics,” the White House announced.

Petr Svab contributed to this report.

Follow Mimi on Twitter: @MimiNguyenLy