Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Calif.) is making a name for himself as the most litigious doofus in Congress. His ranty lawsuits reveal a dangerous disrespect for the First Amendment and a willingness to censor legitimate criticism to advance his political goals.
In addition to pursuing lawsuits against Twitter, GOP strategist Liz Mair, the Twitter accounts @DevinNunesMom and @DevinCow, and reporter Ryan Lizza, Nunes is now suing CNN for alleged libel and slander. His suit, filed December 3 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, calls a recent CNN story about him a "demonstrably false hit piece" and seeks $435,350,000 in damages.
This latest suit stems from a CNN story suggesting Nunes played a role in attempts, directed by President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to convince Ukrainian authorities to investigate a business connected to 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter. That request is now at the center of the current House impeachment inquiry into Trump. Nunes is the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, which has been overseeing the inquiry.
On November 23, CNN reported that Nunes may have had secret meetings in Vienna last year to discuss the Bidens with Ukrainian Prosecutor General Victor Shokin. "Nunes had met with Shokin in Vienna last December," lawyer Joseph A. Bondy told CNN.
Bondy represents Lev Parnas, the "Giuliani associate," who was indicted in October for alleged violations of campaign finance law. Parnas has pleaded not guilty.
Bondy told CNN that his client is willing to testify under oath that Nunes "had told Shokin of the urgent need to launch investigations into Burisma, Joe and Hunter Biden, and any purported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election."
This would mean Nunes is now involved in investigating activity he had a hand in himself. Nunes, however, denies all of Bondy's allegations. But he's suing not Bondy or Parnas for making these allegations; he's suing CNN for reporting on them.
Here's how the introduction to Nunes' lawsuit against CNN opens:
CNN is the mother of fake news. It is the least trusted name. CNN is eroding the fabric of America, proselytizing, sowing distrust and disharmony. It must be held accountable.
That's a good indication of the tenor and substance of Nunes' entire lawsuit, which tries to make up for its lack of legal substance with bombastic culture-war rhetoric and partisan mudslinging.
The meat of Nunes' claim is the he never went to Vienna during the time period in question and has never met or talked to Shokin. But in order to turn this into a libel suit against CNN, he has to do more than simply show that such claims are false; Nunes must also prove that CNN acted with recklessness and intent to spread false claims as fact.
Parnas' claims about Nunes may well turn out to be falsehoods. But showing that CNN deliberately disseminated them in a malicious and intentionally misleading manner is another story. Look at the article's very title, to start with: "Giuliani associate willing to tell Congress Nunes met with ex-Ukrainian official to get dirt on Biden." The story is presented from the start as Shokin's version of events, not something CNN has dug up and deeply reported on its own.
The article opens by stating that "a lawyer for an indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani told CNN that his client is willing to tell Congress about meetings the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee had in Vienna last year with a former Ukrainian prosecutor to discuss digging up dirt on Joe Biden."
That doesn't match up with Nunes' claim that CNN failed to present allegations against him as uncorroborated statements, or that the news outlet failed to offer relevant details about Parnas (like his pending criminal prosecution) that could cast doubt on the truthfulness of his claims.
Nunes accuses CNN of having "intentionally falsified" facts and claims "it was obvious to everyone—including disgraceful CNN—that Parnas was a fraudster and a hustler." But the CNN story draws from on-the-record statements by a respected lawyer whose Trump-adjacent client is willing to testify, under oath, before Congress.
CNN's decision to cover this story and its presentation of the information—if a little sensationalist—were both within normal journalistic bounds. It is important to protect those boundaries from people like Nunes. If he gets anywhere in this lawsuit, media outlets and independent writers could face libel lawsuits whenever they report not just on claims that turn out to be wrong, but any claim that the outlet can't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. The implications of so watering down the standards for libel are vast and alarming.
Essentially, Nunes wants to hold individual news outlets and reporters to the same impossible standards he's sought to impose on social media companies like Twitter. He wants there to be financial consequences for anyone relaying unverified messages by third parties—even if they are labeled as unverified messages by third parties—absent proof that this was done with malicious intent. Tasking publishers and platforms with determining the veracity of all the claims they transmit would more or less give political figures sole authority to spread information about themselves.
There may indeed be "obvious reasons" to doubt Parnas' testimony about Nunes, but that doesn't make Parnas offering it any less newsworthy, nor does it mean that his claims are, in fact, untrue. Plenty of criminals have been known to tell true tales on associates when their own asses are on the line. Moreover, Parnas might not even be a criminal; right now, he's merely been charged.
Nunes' lawsuit against CNN should dispel illusions that he's taking on Twitter as some sort of populist truth teller and warrior against anti-conservative bias in social media. Nunes is just a run-of-the-mill censor, unwilling to counter what he considers bad speech with more speech. He appears to want to crush anyone who dares discuss him in a manner he doesn't like.
Nunes' previous suit, in which he accused Mair of libeling him, claims Twitter is guilty of negligence for allowing Mair's comments to exist.
Section 230 of federal communications law prevents such a claim against Twitter, "whether the claim is brought as a defamation claim or as a negligence claim," notes Eugene Volokh. "Service providers don't have a duty 'to reasonably monitor and police the platform.'"
Volokh also points out that "Nunes argues that Twitter is discriminating in various ways against conservative speakers; but that is irrelevant to a § 230 defense. The statute was passed precisely to make clear that online service providers are immune from liability for others' speech even when they make editing choices about which speech to allow."