California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes filed a major lawsuit seeking $250 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages against Twitter and a handful of its users on Monday, accusing the social media site of “shadow-banning conservatives” to secretly hide their posts, systematically censoring opposing viewpoints, and totally “ignoring” lawful complaints of repeated abusive behavior.
In a complaint filed in Virginia state court on Monday, obtained by Fox News, Nunes claimed Twitter wanted to derail his work on the House Intelligence Committee, which he chaired until 2019, as he looked into alleged and apparent surveillance abuses by the government. Nunes said Twitter was guilty of “knowingly hosting and monetizing content that is clearly abusive, hateful and defamatory – providing both a voice and financial incentive to the defamers – thereby facilitating defamation on its platform.”
The lawsuit alleged defamation, conspiracy and negligence, as well as violations of the state’s prohibition against “insulting words” — effectively fighting words that tend towards “violence and breach of the peace.” The complaint sought not only damages, but also an injunction compelling Twitter to turn over the identities behind numerous accounts he said harassed and defamed him.
“Twitter is a machine,” Nunes’ personal attorney, Steven S. Biss, told Fox News. “It is a modern-day Tammany Hall. Congressman Nunes intends to hold Twitter fully accountable for its abusive behavior and misconduct.”
Although federal law ordinarily exempts services like Twitter from defamation liability at all levels, Nunes’ suit said the platform has taken such an active role in curating and banning content — as opposed to merely hosting it — that it should face liability like any other organization that defames.
“Twitter created and developed the content at issue in this case by transforming false accusations of criminal conduct, imputed wrongdoing, dishonesty and lack of integrity into a publicly available commodity used by unscrupulous political operatives and their donor/clients as a weapon,” Nunes’ legal team wrote. “Twitter is ‘responsible’ for the development of offensive content on its platform because it in some way specifically encourages development of what is offensive about the content.”
The lawsuit is separate from Nunes’ work on the House Intelligence Committee, where he is now the ranking member. To prove his defamation charge, Nunes, as a public figure, would typically need to meet a higher standard than a private individual — essentially that the defendants acted intentionally or recklessly with respect to the provable falsity of their posts, rather than than merely negligently.
The complaint also maintains in its action for negligence, however, that Twitter has a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid hosting outwardly defamatory content because of its increasingly important role in current affairs.
“Access to Twitter is essential for meaningful participation in modern-day American Democracy,” the complaint stated. “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. That is because Twitter is not merely a website: it is the modern town square. Twitter is equivalent to the private owner of a public forum who has fully opened its property to the general public for purposes of permitting the public’s free expression and debate. That is, in fact, what Twitter has always claimed to be.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has testified previously before Congress that his platform is a kind of “digital public square,” although he has insisted that Twitter, as a private company, retains the right to censor speech.
In large part because of Twitter’s actions, Nunes “endured an orchestrated defamation campaign of stunning breadth and scope, one that no human being should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life” in the past year, according to the complaint.
The complaint also named specific Twitter accounts that spread allegedly defamatory material about Nunes. One defendant, identified as “Liz” Mair, purportedly published tweets that “implied that Nunes colluded with prostitutes and cocaine addicts, that Nunes does cocaine, and that Nunes was involved in a ‘Russian money laundering front,'” according to Nunes’ lawyers.
The complaint quoted a June 22, 2018 tweet from Mair that implied Nunes invested in a winery that “allegedly used underage hookers to solicit investment.”
Mair did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment. Fox News has also reached out to Twitter for comment on the lawsuit, and was told only that “we’re not commenting at this time.” (The lawsuit seeks joint and several liability, which permits plaintiffs to recover from one defendant, and then leaves the defendants to sort out what each owes.)
To be fair, I think the @fresnobee writing up your investment in a winery that allegedly used underage hookers to solicit investment– an allegation you’ve known about for years, during which you’ve stayed invested in it, I might add– did surprise you. https://t.co/acMlAXjPP8
— BrandValue$4B (@LizMair) June 23, 2018
The complaint also named “Devin Nunes’ Mom,” “a person who, with Twitter’s consent, hijacked Nunes’ name, falsely impersonated Nunes’ mother, and created and maintained an account on Twitter (@DevinNunesMom) for the sole purpose of attacking, defaming, disparaging and demeaning Nunes.”