US Representative Devin G. Nunes filed a defamation and common-law conspiracy complaint Monday against Politico reporter Ryan Lizza and Hearst Magazines in federal court in Iowa. In the suit, the California Republican claims that a 2018 article Lizza wrote for Esquire called “Devin Nunes’s Family Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret,” was a “scandalous hit piece” that disparaged him and “severely impugned his integrity and skills as a United States Congressman.”
The article centers on how dairy farms in that part of Iowa—including Nunes’ family—rely on labor from undocumented immigrants, a class of people President Trump has targeted and whose policies Nunes has enthusiastically backed. The lawsuit is curiously silent on this point. (A representative for Nunes has not yet replied to a query from Washingtonian whether that means the Congressman had no problems with that part of Lizza’s article.) Nunes claims Lizza’s article was intended to target him “ahead of the November 2018 Congressional election.”
Nunes is seeking $75 million from Lizza and Hearst, which publishes Esquire, in return for what he says were the “insult, pain, embarrassment, humiliation, mental suffering, anguish, and injury to his good name and professional reputation” the article brought him. His lawyers for this complaint include the Charlottesville attorney Steven S. Biss, who also crafted Nunes’ suits against McClatchy and two Twitter accounts that mocked him.
The complaint is written in an unusual style—it refers to the article as the “Lizza Hit Piece” more than two dozen times (and once as a “Hite Piece”), for example, but that’s just the beginning of the questions it raises. Lizza declined to comment on the contents of the lawsuit, and Hearst has not yet returned a request for comment, either.
“It seems to me an extremely weak complaint, at best, which ignores the high level of legal protection afforded by the First Amendment to journalists when they publicly assess the conduct of public officials,” famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams tells Washingtonian. “The First Amendment exists to assure that members of Congress such as Representative Nunes may be subject to tough, even exaggerated, criticism but his complaint seems flatly at odds with that protection.”
Why is Nunes suing Lizza in Iowa?
Nunes’ choice of venue is a bit rich. Lizza’s article notes that his’ family’s farm is not in California but in Iowa, how Nunes’ father pressured a dairy trade publication to remove an article about their Iowa concern, and how Lizza was followed and his sources were harassed while he reported the story in Sibley, Iowa.
Nunes says Iowa is the correct venue for this case because Lizza and Hearst “transact substantial business in Iowa and committed multiple acts of defamation in whole or part in Iowa.” The evidence for this, per the suit, appears to be that Hearst content is available on the internet in Iowa and that its magazines are for sale there.
But while Esquire is available in Iowa, anti-SLAPP protections are not. Anti-SLAPP is a legal concept that protects journalists and others from frivolous suits where the real aim isn’t to redress an alleged libel. (Say, you sue your neighbor for libel, but what you’re really trying to do is get him to stop trying to build an extra story on his house.) Though many states have anti-SLAPP laws, defamation lawsuits have become a particularly potent weapon against the press since Hulk Hogan put Gawker out of business with a suit bankrolled by tech magnate Peter Thiel. They’re expensive to defend, even if you win: In 2015, Mother Jones beat a defamation lawsuit filed against it in Idaho (another state without SLAPP protections) but its legal fees were $650,000.
Nunes’ suit has been assigned to Judge CJ Williams, a Trump appointee.
Nunes is still going after social media
Lizza is not the only journalist named in Nunes’ suit: It also targets Olivia Nuzzi, the writer’s girlfriend, who writes for New York magazine. What was Nuzzi’s alleged misdeed? She tweeted out the story. Including Nuzzi would represent quite a precedent: Asking friendly fellow journos to help push out your story on social media is something that is practiced by nearly every journalist.
A good deal of this complaint’s 25-page real estate is taken up by screenshots of tweets by Lizza, Esquire, Nuzzi, and former Esquire editor Jay Fielden. These tweets, and others by people with large Twitter followings, including MSNBC producer Kyle Griffin, the writer Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, and Washington-area provocateur Claude Taylor, constitute republication of Lizza’s piece, the suit argues. In this suit he says Lizza, Nuzzi, Fielden, and Esquire caused the article’s statements to be “republished millions of times.” This appears to be a novel legal theory: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
It also isn’t Nunes’ first lawsuit involving Twitter, which he believes is biased against conservatives. This spring, Nunes sued Twitter and two Twitter accounts that purported to be his mother and his cow. Twitter users laughed, but victory in court may not have been Nunes’ goal, the libel attorney Jim Bickerton told the Washington Post in March: “In the court of courts, it’s unlikely to be successful,” Bickerton told Allyson Chiu. “In the court of public opinion, that may be where he’s hoping to get the real traction.”
Nunes’ problems with Lizza
For a complaint that repeatedly refers to as “false and defamatory statements,” Nunes’ suit offers a rather skimpy bill of particulars when it comes to contesting Lizza’s reporting. Nunes claims the article’s “click-bait headline falsely states or implies that Plaintiff owned an interest in his family’s farm,” but the article clearly says the Congressman has “no financial interest in his parents’ Iowa dairy operation.” He takes particular umbrage at the idea that the family’s Iowa operation was a secret. And he includes a footnote for the ages when contesting Lizza’s assertion that he “used the Intelligence Committee to spin a baroque theory about alleged surveillance of the Trump campaign that began with a made-up Trump tweet about how “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower”: there “is no dispute that there was surveillance of the Trump campaign,” Nunes’ complaint reads.
The lawsuit does appear to be concerned with influencing public opinion with regard to Lizza. It notes the inclusion of his name on the anonymously written “Shitty Media Men” Google Doc and recaps his high-profile departure from the New Yorker. (Lizza “has denied the allegation and investigations into Lizza’s conduct by CNN, Politico and other media companies determined there was no reason to keep Lizza off the air or bar him from employment,” the Sacramento Bee reported in a story about Nunes’ lawsuit Tuesday.) The complaint describes him as behaving “like a sex offender or pedophile” while he reported the piece. Lizza came to Iowa with a “preconceived storyline,” the complaint reads, and then for some reason proceeds to quote 253 words of a Federalist blog post about the article. In other places, the complaint also references Breitbart News stories and a tweet by Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton as evidence of Lizza’s perfidy.
Nunes believes a conspiracy is afoot
Lizza’s defamation, the complaint says, caused Nunes “insult, pain, embarrassment, humiliation, mental suffering, anguish, and injury to his good name and professional reputation in Iowa and elsewhere,” but it also says Lizza, Nuzzi, Esquire, Fielden, “agents and employees of CNN,” and “others in social media” to “injure Plaintiff’s personal and professional reputations, advance the left-wing goals of Nuzzi and Hearst, interfere with Plaintiff’s duties as a United States Congressman, and influence the outcome of the 2018 Congressional election.”
Nunes faced that election in California.
You can read the complaint here: