Social media giant Twitter on Friday asked a Virginia judge to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, arguing the company has no operations in the state and Nunes’ complaint cannot be considered there.
Judge John Marshall did not issue a ruling, but indicated one is forthcoming in seven to 10 days.
“This isn’t easy, if it were we wouldn’t have all these lawyers here,” Marshall told the court at the end of a three-hour hearing.
Nunes in the lawsuit is also suing Republican political strategist Liz Mair and two parody accounts written by anonymous authors who criticize him on Twitter. The parody Twitter accounts, known as Devin Nunes’ Mom and Devin Nunes’ Cow, remain anonymous five months since Nunes sued them.
Nunes, who gained a national reputation as one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies in Congress, is trying to test his theory that social media companies suppress the views of conservatives like him. Republicans who believe Twitter hides their posts refer to the concept as “shadow-banning.”
Twitter denies that it is biased against conservatives and is prepared to fight the case if Marshall allows it to move forward.
Shadow banning “is not true, it doesn’t happen,” Twitter attorney Patrick J. Carome said Friday.
Nunes also wants information on groups that disparage him on social media. His attorney Steven Biss, argued that Twitter is responsible for posts from Mair and the anonymous accounts. Biss compared Twitter to a person negligently giving Mair and the parody accounts a gun.
“What if you set a fire on your property and I told you it was choking my baby?” Biss asked Judge Marshall, as another metaphor, which prompted some stifled chuckles from cow supporters in the courtroom. “You should have to put it out.”
The Twitter lawsuit is one of three legal complaints Nunes has filed this year alleging activists conspired against him.
The attention his lawsuits generated vastly swelled the influence of his critics. The previously obscure parody accounts now have hundreds of thousands of followers between them, which they use to support Nunes’ political opponents.
Some of their fans showed up for the hearing. About 20 people in the courtroom sported cow shirts, a reference to the Twitter account @DevinCow. One of them wore a pair of cow ears. Others carried signs and stuffed animals.
Should Nunes’ case move to California?
The hearing largely centered on motions Twitter and Mair filed to dismiss the case from Henrico County Circuit Court. The San Francisco-based social media company argued that Nunes had no grounds to sue the company in Virginia, and that he had accepted a user agreement that obliged him to sue Twitter in California under most circumstances.
“Mr. Nunes tries to get through a lot of twists and bends to say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t apply to me,’ but this is a contract that applies to all Twitter users,” Twitter attorney Carome argued on that point, adding that Nunes was a U.S. congressman, not a “country bumpkin.”
If the case advances, Twitter and Mair would prefer to try it in California. California, Nunes’ home state, has stricter laws discouraging frivolous lawsuits than Virginia and Nunes could be held responsible for their legal fees if a court rules against him.
Biss argued the case belongs in Virginia because Mair lived there, and because Nunes suffered harm in Virginia. Biss said that federal intelligence agencies, over which Nunes has oversight power, are located in northern Virginia.
Marshall and attorneys left open the possibility that he could dismiss the suit against Twitter in Virginia but let the suit against Mair move forward. It’s unclear how that would affect the parody accounts, since their identities and residency are unknown.
Twitter’s lawyers and Biss declined to comment to McClatchy after the hearing.
@DevinCow fans in court
Some of the cow’s supporters who spoke after the hearing said they felt Biss’ arguments were “ridiculous.”
“To say that Twitter is shadow banning conservatives while the president is running around making false accusations and ridiculous claims about people all the time is absolutely absurd,” said April Sullivan, 51, a resident of Henrico County.
In a separate case, Nunes in Virginia is suing Sacramento-based McClatchy alleging that The Fresno Bee defamed him in a news article focused on his partnership in a winery that was the subject of an employee’s lawsuit. McClatchy intends to fight the case and has called the lawsuit a “baseless attack on local journalism and a free press.”
Nunes filed a third lawsuit in Tulare County Superior Court, where he is suing four Californians who challenged his description of himself as a farmer on ballots that went to voters last year. Nunes won the ballot challenge, and was allowed to refer to himself as a congressman and farmer on ballots.
If the Twitter case is allowed to proceed Nunes could press for discovery requests that have been stalled since he filed the lawsuit in March.
Nunes’ discovery requests are extensive, and include:
- The identity of anyone Twitter has done business with in Virginia since 2014
- Any time a Twitter employee has been present in Virginia since 2014
- Any telephone calls by Twitter employees to somewhere in Virginia since 2014
- All emails and text messages of Twitter employees or any of the defendants that mention Nunes
- All information related to the parody accounts @DevinCow and @DevinNunesMom, including phone numbers and all their tweets, messages, likes and retweets
- Everyone who donated to a political fundraising group called Swamp Accountability Project, which bought radio ads against Nunes, from Jan. 1, 2018 to March 18
- Mair’s tax returns dating back to 2016 and a report of her assets and liabilities
- Any communications between Mair or her company that mention Nunes
Carome, Twitter’s attorney, called those requests the “most overly broad discovery I have ever seen in my 35 years of practicing law,” and said he would contest them.