If any politicians lack standing to complain about being mocked or bullied on Twitter, it is staunch supporters of Donald Trump, a president who constantly uses the platform to abuse his political enemies. If any are particularly ill-positioned to sue Twitter over satire or mockery, it’s Trump-supporting Republicans who also champion the Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act.
Yet Congressman Devin Nunes, a staunch Trump supporter who recently co-sponsored the Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act, has filed a $250-million lawsuit against Twitter.
The lawsuit makes it very easy to laugh at Nunes — not because it exposes him as a hypocrite, but because he was so vexed by two anonymously written Twitter accounts.
One parody account falsely purported to be written by his mom.
“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,” states the legal complaint that he voluntarily entered into the public record.
With respect to his fitness for office, it appears that “Devin Nunes’ Mom” had a point.
Inadvisable as that was, the lawsuit might’ve spurred fewer jokes from late-night comedy shows if he hadn’t also decided to sue a parody account purporting to be written by his cow. (I could not independently confirm whether any cow owned by his family is literate.) Before the lawsuit was filed, @devincow had 1,200 followers. Now it has 557,000 followers, making it the most followed imaginary cow on the platform, as far as I know.
Legal experts who’ve reviewed the lawsuit are laughing, too.
Attorney and free speech expert Ken White declared it “unusually buffoonish” on the KCRW podcast he co-hosts, explaining that some of its theories are clearly at odds with federal law, and that it targets a lot of material that is definitely protected by the 1st Amendment.
“Even in an era of stupid lawsuits, this one sticks out,” White said. “It seems almost like some kind of ritual self-humiliation by Nunes, kind of a jurisprudential streaking.”
But he added that the lawsuit is serious insofar as it forces the people named as defendants “to lawyer up and face the very stressful and expensive prospect of litigation to get rid of it.”
One of those people, political consultant Liz Mair, an outspoken critic of Nunes, commented that “Rep. Nunes and I have starkly different views on civil liberties writ large.” She takes exception to a politician suing U.S. citizens for engaging in an American birthright: criticizing politicians.
It was the French playwright Moliere who articulated one of the best defenses of preserving the freedom to deploy mockery as criticism. “The most forceful lines of a serious moral statement are usually less powerful than those of satire; and nothing will reform most men better than the depiction of their faults,” he wrote. “It is a vigorous blow to vices to expose them to public laughter.” To exempt anyone from comedy, he added, “would be much more dangerous than the thing itself.”
I won’t defend the substance of every tweet aimed at the congressman, or the character of the most vile. But it isn’t clear that any of them meet the legal standard for libel.
By filing this lawsuit, Nunes has done orders of magnitude more damage to his reputation than anything contained in all of the tweets that bothered him.
The lawsuit also targets all sorts of speech that is neither libelous nor vile. For example, this tweet: “The people of California’s Central Valley are upright folk who work hard, look you square in the eye and give you a firm handshake. And then there is @DevinNunes.”
A congressman who believes it should be illegal to express that opinion doesn’t deserve his seat and certainly isn’t defending or protecting the Constitution. With respect to his fitness for office, it appears that “Devin Nunes’ Mom” had a point.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.