Virginia Court Allows Nunes Suit for Defamation Against Twitter to Proceed

October 10, 2019 Updated: October 10, 2019

After social media company Twitter brought a motion to dismiss a $250 million defamation lawsuit filed in Virginia by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a Virginia state court refused the request and ruled the litigation could proceed in Virginia.

Nunes claims the defendants attacked him for his policies and loyalty to President Donald Trump—who is himself a frequent user of Twitter—and crossed the line that separates fair comment from libel.

Twitter, a popular micro-blogging website frequently charged with censoring conservatives, is accused in the suit, not of defamation, but of negligence because it has been “knowingly hosting and monetizing content that is clearly abusive, hateful, and defamatory,” according to Nunes, the former chairman and now senior Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

In March, Nunes initiated his lawsuit in Henrico County Circuit Court in Richmond, Virginia, against various parties including Twitter, the anonymous parody accounts “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and “Devin Nunes’ Cow,” and Republican political consultant Liz Mair. Devin Nunes’ Cow, whose Twitter handle is @DevinCow, describes itself on its profile page as: “Hanging out on the dairy in Iowa looking for the lil’ treasonous cowpoke.”

Co-defendants Twitter, based in San Francisco, and Mair, of Stamford, Connecticut, sought to have the lawsuit dismissed.

Twitter told the court its users’ speech is covered under the First Amendment and that any legal proceeding against the company should have been brought in its home state. The selection of a venue for litigation is included in the terms of service agreement users consent to when they open a Twitter account.

But Judge John Marshall of the Henrico County Circuit Court ruled in Nunes v. Twitter Inc. that the terms of service weren’t relevant to the injuries that Nunes claims.

“The use of Twitter by the defendants to post allegedly defamatory statements cannot subject the plaintiff to the terms of use agreement and the forum selection clause as it would not subject a plaintiff who did not have a Twitter account to the terms of use agreement,” the ruling states.

“The plaintiff came from California to Virginia to pursue claims that arose in Virginia against defendants who were in Virginia,” the judge’s ruling states. “The causes of action in this case are interdependent and for the other reasons in this opinion, the court will not dismiss the action against Twitter on claims of inconvenience” with respect to the judicial forum, he wrote.

The Twitter posts were created and published in Virginia and therefore the cause of action for defamation also arose in Virginia, the judge wrote, adding that Twitter maintains a registered agent in the state, has many users there, and takes in revenue from the state.

Will Chamberlain, a lawyer and publisher of Human Events, has argued that social media platform “access is a civil right,” and that Americans “should now have the same right to speak on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that [they have] in a public park.”

Chamberlain told The Epoch Times by email that Marshall’s ruling was “a positive development,” and that “victims of online defamation should be able to bring suit in the state they reside in.”

“This ruling will not open any floodgates: it’s a state court ruling by a lower court judge. It’s not binding precedent, and it’s unlikely to influence federal judges,” he said, adding he was unable to comment on the Nunes legal complaint itself as he hadn’t read it.

Paul Levy of Public Citizen Litigation Group took the opposite tack, telling Courthouse News Service the ruling could chill free speech because it “seems to say anybody from anywhere who’s defamed on the internet … can be sued and sue anywhere in the country even if it has nothing to do with the specific jurisdiction.”

The lawsuit continues.

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