The West

Judge wants real name of fake cow before acting on Devin Nunes’ Twitter lawsuit

A Virginia judge has asked Twitter to provide more information about the authors of two anonymous parody accounts that heckle California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes before deciding whether to dismiss the congressman’s lawsuit against the social media company.

Judge John Marshall is weighing a request from San Francisco-based Twitter to dismiss Nunes’ lawsuit on the grounds that it does not belong in Virginia.

Marshall asked Twitter to provide the names and addresses of the anonymous authors behind the two accounts, the gross amount of revenue for Twitter in 2018 and the first half of 2019 and the number of Twitter accounts in Virginia.

Nunes, R-Tulare, is suing Twitter, the two parody accounts known as Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mom and Republican strategist Liz Mair, alleging that the social media company allowed the users to defame him.

Nunes’ attorney through discovery motions has asked for the information Marshall is requesting. Marshall wrote that the information would be kept under seal.

That means only the judge and not the opposing counsel would have immediate access to the documents, according to Tom Albro, a longtime Virginia defamation attorney, though “the judge can permit counsel for the parties to see them also.” Lee E. Berlik, another veteran Virginia defamation lawyer, agreed that the phrasing of Marshall’s request sounds like he intends to review the documents himself at this point, not share them with Nunes’ lawyer.

The Henrico County Circuit Court did not respond to a request for clarification on that point.

“The court is cognizant of the sensitive nature of the materials requested by the plaintiff from defendant Twitter in his discovery requests ... The court also understands the position of counsel for Twitter that discovery should not occur until the court has decided whether venue is appropriate for this court,” Marshall wrote.

When asked for comment by McClatchy, a Twitter spokesman said, “Defending and respecting the user’s voice is one of our core values at Twitter. This value is a two-part commitment to freedom of expression and privacy.”

The company did not respond to a follow-up question on if that meant Twitter would not provide identifying information about the accounts, but Twitter has a record of fighting efforts to force it to disclose information about anonymous accounts.

In 2017, Twitter filed suit against the government when it tried to make Twitter reveal who was behind an account tweeting negative things about President Donald Trump’s administration. The government then rescinded the request.

Twitter also sued the government in 2014 so it could more freely share when the government was requesting information about accounts. That case is ongoing.

Twitter has successfully fought private citizens when asked to reveal anonymous accounts. In 2015, a woman sought the identities of two accounts she claimed had defamed her on Twitter, but a California court denied her request.

The people who manage the anonymous Twitter accounts Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mom told McClatchy on Thursday that they have never lived in Virginia.

The lawsuit was the first of three Nunes filed this year alleging that activists conspired to damage his reputation last year, both to harm his chances at re-election and to inhibit his ability to lead the House Intelligence Committee.

Nunes and other Republicans have accused Twitter of hiding some of their accounts or tweets out of a bias against conservatives, which they refer to as “shadow banning.”

And Nunes has been trying to suss out the identities of the anonymous authors of Twitter accounts known as Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mom. The two have consistently mocked Nunes on the social media platform since the 2018 election and their audiences have grown immensely since Nunes sued them. He also is trying to identify Mair’s clients.

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Twitter and other defendants have argued that the better venue for the lawsuit is California because it is both Nunes’ home state and the site of Twitter’s headquarters. Twitter also argued that Nunes, as a Twitter user, agreed to file any suits he brought against the company in California.

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.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.