It’s no easy feat to be the most thin-skinned man in American politics these days, especially given that the country is run by a short-fingered vulgarian who compulsively tweets about every real and perceived slight against him. But Devin Nunes has done the impossible and surpassed even Donald Trump in hypersensitivity.
Nunes, a Republican representative from California, filed a $250 million lawsuit on Monday against Twitter and a handful of users who criticized him, accusing them of negligence and defamation. He even claims that the defendants are part of a grand conspiracy to cripple his political career. Who’s leading this dastardly plot? Nunes doesn’t quite say. Maybe it’s the Democratic Party, he suggests. Or unnamed liberal donors. Or even hostile foreign adversaries. Whoever these hostile actors are, they’re not only causing him grievous harm; they’re contributing to “the corruption of American democracy and society.”
What the lawsuit really demonstrates, though, is the stunning vindictiveness of a powerful elected official who would use the legal system to punish his critics. If the lawsuit was intended to vindicate Nunes and his reputation, it has achieved precisely the opposite.
Nunes rose to national fame over the last two years as the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, a perch he used to undermine the Russia investigation and defend Trump. In the complaint, he depicts himself as an honorable public servant who’s been wrongly maligned by his powerful opponents—only one of whom, longtime Republican political operative Liz Mair, is explicitly named. The others are unknown to him: the Twitter users responsible for anonymous parody accounts such as “Devin Nunes’ Mom,” “Devin Nunes’ Cow,” “Fire Devin Nunes,” and “Devin Nunes’ Grapes.”
Nunes obliquely implies that Mair is in cahoots with these accounts’ owners, but offers no proof to support the theory. Either way, like a high school teacher hit from behind with a spitball, he’s determined to find out who’s responsible. “The identity of those behind the Twitter accounts is a matter of great public concern,” Nunes told the court. “Whether the accounts are controlled by wealthy Democrats, the Democratic National Committee, an opposition research firm, such as Fusion GPS, the ‘Russians,’ the ‘Chinese,’ or some other foreign government or non-governmental organization, the corruption of American democracy and society by intentional falsehoods, fraud and defamation must stop.”
What horrible things did these accounts say about Nunes to warrant the judiciary’s intervention? The account named “Devin Nunes’ Mom” receives the most attention in the complaint. Its owner frequently posted caustic remarks about him and his actions toward the Russia investigation. One tweet said that Nunes was unfit to run the House Intelligence Committee, while another joked that he was “voted ‘Most Likely to Commit Treason’ in high school.” Some tweets are indistinguishable from legitimate political criticism. Others are more puerile, implying that Nunes wanted to commit sexual acts with Trump and other top Republicans.
“In her endless barrage of tweets, Devin Nunes’ Mom maliciously attacked every aspect of Nunes’ character, honesty, integrity, ethics and fitness to perform his duties as a United States Congressman,” Nunes wrote in the complaint. Twitter apparently suspended the account this month for impersonating a real person, but not before he “suffered substantial insult, humiliation, embarrassment, pain, mental suffering and damage to his reputation as a result of the unprecedented personal and professional attacks on his character.”
Why did these tweets wound Nunes so deeply? The accounts’ jibes resemble much of the political commentary on Twitter—including the president’s. Nunes’s real grievance appears to be with Twitter itself. “Twitter represents that it enforces its Terms and Rules equally and that it does not discriminate against conservatives who wish to use its ‘public square,’” he told the court. “This is not true. This is a lie. Twitter actively censors and shadow-bans conservatives, such as Plaintiff, thereby eliminating his voice while amplifying the voices of his Democratic detractors.”
Twitter has denied that it uses shadow banning—making a user’s posts visible to themselves but invisible to others—but that hasn’t stopped Republican lawmakers, including Trump, from making the claim as part of a broader narrative that Silicon Valley is censoring conservative voices.
Nunes’s claim for damages also doesn’t hold up. He says that Twitter bears legal responsibility for any defamatory posts made on its platform. In reality, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act generally shields websites from civil liability related to third-party content on their platforms. Nunes himself should be pretty familiar with this: As Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown pointed out, he and his colleagues have been working to change Section 230 for this exact reason.
Nunes adopts a patriotic mien when it comes to the broader free speech issues at stake. “Access to Twitter is essential for meaningful participation in modern-day American Democracy,” he told the court. “A candidate without Twitter is a losing candidate. The ability to use Twitter is a vital part of modern citizenship. A presence on Twitter is essential for an individual to run for office or engage in any level of political organizing in modern America. This is because Twitter is not merely a website: it is the modern town square.”
This paean to civic speech might be more convincing if Nunes didn’t ask the court to force Twitter to “reveal the names and contact information” behind four of the pseudonymous accounts. What’s more, he also wants the court to “permanently enjoin and order Twitter” to suspend Mair and the other accounts. Twitter is a vital part of modern American citizenship, Nunes says, and he wants the government to strip people of access to it for being mean to him.
But Americans have every right to mock and insult their elected officials. During the election of 1796, the first contested presidential race in the nation’s history, Alexander Hamilton wrote a pseudonymous pamphlet that accused Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with an enslaved woman he owned. (The allegation later turned out to be true.) Jefferson’s supporters jeered at John Adams as “His Rotundity” and called him a hermaphrodite, while Adams’s camp accused Jefferson of supporting prostitution and incest. Adams later arrested one of Jefferson’s pamphleteers during the election of 1800 and tried to prosecute him under the Alien and Sedition Acts. The American tradition of salacious and spurious political attacks is alive and well in the Trump era.
The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a Supreme Court case from 1964, set a formidable threshold for defamation claims by public figures like Nunes. The justices cited a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” even if it includes “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The tweets against Nunes appear to fall well within those bounds. But Nunes ignores that landmark ruling (perhaps because, like Justice Clarence Thomas, he would like to see Sullivan overturned). Instead, he cites a smattering of other cases to defend his “fundamental constitutional interest and entitlement to the uninterrupted enjoyment of his reputation.” One of his longest citations isn’t from law, but a passage from Shakespeare’s Othello in which Iago bemoans that “he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed.”
So why embark on what appears to be a doomed legal endeavor? Perhaps Nunes genuinely believes he’s the victim of a conspiracy theory by Democrats and America’s foreign adversaries. If there’s evidence to support this, Nunes doesn’t offer it. “The full scope of the conspiracy, including the names of all participants and the level of involvement of donors and members of the Democratic Party, is unknown at this time and will be the subject of discovery in this action,” he noted in the complaint. In other words, Nunes wants to go on a fishing expedition to satiate his political grievances, and he wants the courts to light the way.
Or maybe Nunes is trying to use the legal system to get revenge on his political opponents. Defending oneself against litigation is onerous even for those with the financial means to fight back. (Mair urged her Twitter followers on Monday night to donate to her legal defense fund.) The rich have always wielded the American legal system as a cudgel against critics, as Peter Thiel did in financing the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that ultimately killed Gawker. That a member of Congress would attempt to do so is deeply disturbing.
Nunes’s largely anonymous Twitter critics cast him as a shameless partisan hack—someone who abuses power and the legal process to injure his political opponents, who plays fast and loose with the truth to advance partisan goals, and who’s prone to conspiratorial thinking on the flimsiest of grounds. They say he lacks the temperament and honor to serve on the House Intelligence Committee and safeguard the nation’s secrets. His lawsuit only proves them right.