Devin Nunes Sues Again; He REALLY Doesn't Want You To Read This Article About His Family's Cow Farm In Iowa
from the really,-don't-read-it dept
Devin Nunes is on quite a roll with stifling free speech. The Congressman, who once co-sponsored a bill discouraging frivolous lawsuits and also voted for a House Amendment saying that free speech should be protected, has been filing a whole bunch of lawsuits that appear to serve no purpose other than to stifle free speech — mainly free speech that criticizes Devin Nunes. Back when he filed the first of these suits (against satirical Twitter accounts, among others), we noted that he seemed particularly mad about an article by Ryan Lizza in Esquire trying to track down details about the Nunes’ family’s dairy farm, which is not in California where Nunes’ Congressional district is, but in Iowa. Lizza noticed that Nunes appeared to go to great lengths to not have the public realize that his family’s dairy farm (which is a big part of his bio) up and left California. The article is entitled Devin Nunes?s Family Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret and it is absolutely worth reading, in part because Devin Nunes really doesn’t want you to read it. But also, in part, because it had paragraphs like this:
Nunes grew up in a family of dairy farmers in Tulare, California, and as long as he has been in politics, his family dairy has been central to his identity and a feature of every major political profile written about him. A March story in National Review is emblematic. It describes how Nunes?s family emigrated from the Azores in Portugal to California?s Central Valley, ?a fertile, sunny Eden,? and how the family ?worked and saved enough money to buy a 640-acre farm outside Tulare.? The soil of the Central Valley is depicted as almost sacred in these articles. National Review quotes a 1912 Portuguese immigrant farmer who wrote that when he grabs a clump of dirt, ?I feel as if I had just shaken hands with all my ancestors.? As recently as July 27, the lead of a Wall Street Journal editorial-page piece about Nunes, which featured a Tulare dateline, emphasized the dairy: ?It?s 105 degrees as I stand with Rep. Devin Nunes on his family?s dairy farm.? Last year, Nunes noted in an interview with the Daily Beast?headline: ?The Dairy Farmer Overseeing U.?S. Spies and the Russia Hack Investigation???I?m pretty simple. I like agriculture.? The Daily Beast noted, ?The cows are not far from his mind. He keeps in regular contact with his brother and father about their dairy farm.?
So here?s the secret: The Nunes family dairy of political lore?the one where his brother and parents work?isn?t in California. It?s in Iowa. Devin; his brother, Anthony III; and his parents, Anthony Jr. and Toni Dian, sold their California farmland in 2006. Anthony Jr. and Toni Dian, who has also been the treasurer of every one of Devin?s campaigns since 2001, used their cash from the sale to buy a dairy eighteen hundred miles away in Sibley, a small town in northwest Iowa where they?as well as Anthony III, Devin?s only sibling, and his wife, Lori?have lived since 2007. Devin?s uncle Gerald still owns a dairy back in Tulare, which is presumably where The Wall Street Journal?s reporter talked to Devin, and Devin is an investor in a Napa Valley winery, Alpha Omega, but his immediate family?s farm?as well as his family?is long gone.
Much of the article actually focuses on the fact that many of the farms in and around Sibley, Iowa employ undocumented workers, which seems just a wee bit hypocritical considering the strong support in the area for a President who is desperately trying to kick undocumented people out of the country, and Nunes himself, who has been a stalwart support of the Trump agenda. Lizza spends a lot of time trying to track down if the Nunes farm employs undocumented workers, and is followed around town by various Nunes family members. Other strange things happen as well, including the local newspaper suddenly disappearing a nearly decade old story after Lizza showed up in town (in part because he’d read that now gone article).
As I noted above, the original lawsuit mentions this article in passing, and the fact that some people were discussing it on Twitter, but now he’s actually sued Lizza and Esquire’s publisher, Hearst Magazines for $75 million. The lawsuit is filed in federal court in Iowa, with the same Virginia-based lawyer that Nunes has used in all of the other lawsuits he’s been filing against journalists and critics lately, and with local representation from lawyer Joseph Feller in Sibley, Iowa, whose legal practice seems to focus mostly on estate planning and agriculture law — not defamation.
Notably, Iowa has no anti-SLAPP law.
Also notably, none of the parties reside in or near Iowa. Sure, the article is about Iowa. And Nunes’ family (as we now know) lives in Iowa. But they’re not the plaintiffs. There is some argument that if there were defamation (and that seems unlikely) the “harm” to Nunes’ reputation would happen in Iowa because of this article, but it seems pretty damn clear from the article, at least, that at least most of the Iowans profiled are on Nunes’ side. It seems like there’s a much stronger case that if (again, which is unlikely) there is any actual reputational harm, it’s to those outside of Iowa. Such as Nunes’ constituents. In California.
But, notably, California has a strong anti-SLAPP law.
As for the filing itself, well, it’s about as ridiculous as you can imagine. Very little in Lizza’s Esquire piece actually talks about Devin Nunes. It focuses much more on his family and the town where his family lives. As with past Nunes lawsuits, it seems more performative for a, well, certain audience, than for actually convincing a judge. In the very first line it calls Lizza “a left-wing political journalist, well-known for his extreme bias towards Plaintiff,” highlights that Lizza lost a job at the New Yorker in a #MeToo situation, and uses that to at least, bizarrely, imply that Lizza’s trip to Sibley was to stalk female members of Nunes’ family.
Lizza was a fixture of the main stream media until December 2017, when his then-employer ? The New Yorker magazine ? summarily severed all ties and publicly terminated Lizza because of ?improper sexual conduct?…. Lizza?s name had been included in the ?Shitty Media Men? list that circulated in response to allegations published about Harvey Weinstein…. In June 2018, Esquire announced that it had hired Lizza as the magazine?s chief political correspondent…. Lizza only lasted a short time at Esquire. During his brief tenure, however, he physically traveled to Sibley, Iowa, where he lurked around Plaintiff?s grammar-school aged nieces and stalked members of Plaintiff?s family, reducing Plaintiff?s sister-in-law to tears.
Later in the complaint, it literally says:
… while he was in Sibley, Lizza stalked Plaintiff?s grammar-school aged nieces, behaved like a sex offender or pedophile cruising the local neighborhood for victims, frightened a family member to tears, and exploited a grieving mother.
Not that you can claim defamation based on what’s filed in a lawsuit, but those suggestions seem to toe much closer to the defamation line than anything in Lizza’s article.
It takes a while for the complaint to actually get around to listing what statements it believes are defamatory (spending a bunch of time pretending that each time someone linked to Lizza’s piece on Twitter it meant the story was being “republished” which is… uh… not how it works). But here’s what the complaint claims is defamatory:
The Lizza Hit Piece falsely accuses Plaintiff, the ?head of the House Intelligence Committee and one of President Trump?s biggest defenders?, of being involved in covering-up a ?secret?, to wit:
- ?Devin Nunes?s Family Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret?.
- ?So why did [Plaintiff?s] parents and brother cover their tracks after quietly moving the farm to Iowa? Are they hiding something politically explosive??
- ?Devin Nunes has a secret?.
- ?Which brings us back to Nunes?s secret?.
- ?So here?s the secret: The Nunes family dairy of political lore?the one where his brother and parents work?isn?t in California. It?s in Iowa?.
- ?There?s nothing particularly strange about a congressman?s family moving. But what is strange is that the family has apparently tried to conceal the move from the public?for more than a decade?.
- ?Why would the Nuneses, Steve King, and an obscure dairy publication all conspire to hide the fact that the congressman?s family sold its farm and moved to Iowa??
- ?On the other hand, [Plaintiff] and his parents seemed to have concealed basic facts about the family?s move to Iowa. It was suspicious?.
Later on, the complaint lists out some other “false and defamatory statements:”
a. ?Devin Nunes has a secret?.
b. Plaintiff used his position as Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee as a ?battering ram to discredit the Russia investigation and protect Donald Trump at all costs, even if it means shredding his own reputation and the independence of the historically nonpartisan committee in the process?. c. Plaintiff ?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??.
d. ?Devin; his brother, Anthony III; and his parents, Anthony Jr. and Toni Dian, sold their California farmland in 2006. Anthony Jr. and Toni Dian, who has also been the treasurer of every one of Devin?s campaigns since 2001, used their cash from the sale to buy a dairy eighteen hundred miles away in Sibley, a small town in northwest Iowa where they?as well as Anthony III, Devin?s only sibling, and his wife, Lori?have lived since 2007 ? [W]hat is strange is that the family has apparently tried to conceal the move from the public?for more than a decade?.
e. ?Why would the Nuneses, Steve King, and an obscure dairy publication all conspire to hide the fact that the congressman?s family sold its farm and moved to Iowa??
f. ?Devin Nunes was the public figure at the heart of this, and he had no financial interest in his parents? Iowa dairy operation. On the other hand, he and his parents seemed to have concealed basic facts about the family?s move to Iowa. It was suspicious. And his mom, who co-owns the Sibley dairy, is also the treasurer of his campaign?.
g. ?I laid out the facts I had uncovered in Sibley, including the intimidation of sources and the Devin Nunes angle, and asked him for advice. ?I?d tell that story,? he said. He paused and added, ?We?re a sanctuary church, if you need a place to stay. You?re safe here!??
h. ?Is it possible the Nuneses have nothing to be seriously concerned about? Of course, but I never got the chance to ask because Anthony Jr. and Representative Nunes did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.?
At least here there are some statements of fact — but it’s difficult to see how any of them are even remotely defamatory. Unless Nunes’ family didn’t sell their farm and didn’t move to Iowa, but so far no one has denied that. Statement (e) is a question and is about Steve King and “an obscure dairy publication,” not Nunes. How is that defamatory towards Nunes? Statement (g) is even less about Nunes because it’s just a quote from someone else offering to protect Lizza! And is Nunes really claiming that saying he did not respond to numerous requests for interviews is defamatory? Because… that’s not how it works.
Let’s be clear: none of that comes anywhere even remotely in the same vicinity as a legitimate defamation claim. It all seems to center around the question of whether or not Devin Nunes has a “secret.” And is he really going to argue in court that he has no secrets? And arguing over whether or not he’s kept his family moving their farm from California to Iowa a secret is not defamation either. It is broadly either opinion, opinion based on disclosed facts, or substantially true. Words like “conspire” are, at worst, rhetorical hyperbole.
In other words, this is not defamatory. This is yet another SLAPP suit by Devin Nunes, who wants to claim to be a free speech supporter while suing multiple different critics over their free speech. What a hypocrite. Yet, here we are, and because Iowa has no anti-SLAPP statute, no matter what, this is going to cost at least Hearst (and possibly Lizza) a bunch of time and money.
This is why every state needs an anti-SLAPP law and why we need a federal anti-SLAPP law. If Nunes keeps filing these bullshit lawsuits against his critics, don’t be surprised if other politicians decide that they too want to scare off critics with burdensome, if frivolous, lawsuits like this.