A Los Angeles-based First Amendment attorney Monday labeled Rep. Devin Nunes the “libel bully” of 2019 to call attention to what she claims is the Republican congressman’s part in the trend of frivolous lawsuits filed by the rich and powerful to stifle criticism.
Seager, a clinical staff attorney at UC Irvine law school, said she bestowed the title — which has no connection to the University of California — on Nunes, R-Tulare, because he was the “obvious” choice after filing a half-dozen complaints, including two against Twitter parody accounts seeking $250 million in damages.
“The thin-skinned tiller from Tulare filed six libel lawsuits in just one year,” Seager said. “That’s a record for an elected official — or for anyone.”
A Nunes representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Three years ago, Seager detailed a pre-presidential Donald Trump’s history of libel lawsuits against critics, finding that Trump and his companies “never won a single speech-related case filed in a public court.”
Nunes “is an even worse libel bully than his political benefactor,” Seager said, referring to Trump.
“Trump filed his libel bully lawsuits before he was elected president, but Nunes filed his lawsuits as a sitting congressman,” the attorney said at a news conference on the steps of a downtown Los Angeles courthouse. “That’s much more dangerous because Nunes’ lawsuits can stifle reporting and speech about a sitting elected official, which is speech about a matter of paramount public concern.”
Among the defendants in Nunes’ suits are two Twitter parody accounts — Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mom — who the lawmaker claims published false and defamatory statements about him. Nunes also sued Twitter for “negligently” failing to remove what he claims are libelous tweets.
“Nunes’ lawsuits against a fake cow and a fake mom may be funny, but they are no joke,” Seager said. “I am calling attention to Nunes’ lawsuits because I think they are dangerous to our democracy.”
Nunes has sued Twitter, CNN, Hearst, McClatchy Newspapers, journalists, a political research firm, the parody cow Twitter account, the parody mom Twitter account, a political strategist, a retired farmer, a librarian, and other individuals and companies, Seager said.
“I believe Nunes’ lawsuits will eventually be dismissed because they are hollow at their core,” Seager said. “There are no valid claims in these lawsuits. They are frivolous.”
Even if the lawsuits are eventually dismissed, the litigation is intrusive, expensive, and exhausting for journalists, media companies and others, the journalist-turned attorney said.
Failed political candidates Sarah Palin and Roy Moore also filed their own meritless suits against the media and critics last year, before Seager created the title, she said.
“Did you know that we can’t sue the federal government or federal officials for libeling us?” Seager said. “Congress passed a law saying we can’t. That’s a good thing.”
But Congress and state legislatures need to pass laws to protect journalists and everyone else from “bogus libel lawsuits” by elected officials and others, she said. Seager urged Congress and individual states to enact strong “anti-libel bully” laws, such as California’s anti-SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — laws intended to prevent people from using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate those who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
Such laws make it easier to quickly dismiss frivolous lawsuits targeting speech about matters of public concern. The laws also force plaintiffs to pay their target’s legal fees if the case is dismissed based on an anti-SLAPP motion.
Seager said that she analyzed Nunes’ six lawsuits, finding them “so lame that I plan to use them as a teaching tool.” She said that Nunes dropped one of the lawsuits — against a retired California farmer and three others — when the defendants said they planned to file a dismissal motion under California’s anti-SLAPP law.
“The quick dismissal was a sign that Nunes knew his lawsuit was frivolous, and he would lose in court,” Seager said.
Is the attorney concerned that Nunes may file a frivolous lawsuit against her?
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Seager said, adding that she was confident her comments were fully protected.