For at least a generation or two, one of the Republican Party’s core policy goals was putting an end to frivolous lawsuits. GOP officials and candidates, for as long as I can remember, have used the phrase “trial lawyers” as a nasty epithet – always repeated with disgust – and blamed excessive litigation for many of society’s ills.
In fact, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has tried to help lead the way on the issue, co-sponsoring legislation in the last Congress called the “Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act.”
Evidently, the California Republican’s perspective on the issue has changed.
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California is suing Twitter and several of its users for more than $250 million, accusing them of defamation and negligence.
The defendants include two anonymous parody accounts, “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and “Devin Nunes’ Cow.”
As Nunes sees it, Twitter has not only hurt the congressman’s feelings, the social-media platform has also censored “viewpoints with which it disagrees.” And as a consequence, the GOP lawmaker believes he’s entitled to a quarter of a billion dollars.
Donald Trump appears to think the litigation, filed by one of his most loyal congressional allies, is a great idea.
It’s really not.
For one thing, though far-right conspiracy theorists are convinced that Twitter and other tech giants are secretly undermining conservatives, there is no evidence to bolster such a plot. For another, as the Associated Press’ report noted, the Communication Decency Act shields online enterprises such as Twitter from being held liable for content published by their users.
There’s also that pesky First Amendment – which has protected Americans who ridicule public figures for more than two centuries.
Indeed, Nunes’ litigation specifically quotes the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
In the congressman’s mind, this quote lends support to his case. It does the opposite.
The whole endeavor makes Nunes appear quite small and petty. It’s likely that literally every member of Congress has been mocked and insulted on Twitter at one time or another, but only one filed suit against the platform and asked for $250 million.
That the case was brought by a staunch opponent of frivolous lawsuits adds a touch of comedy to this unfortunate mess.
So why file the lawsuit at all? Only the congressman and his lawyers know for sure, but I suspect it’s part of a misguided political game: in the coming weeks and months, Nunes will be able to send out fundraising appeals, bragging about being the one member brave enough to take on those Twitter rascals and their nefarious anti-conservative conspiracy for which there is no proof. We’ll likely see him heralded in conservative media and applauded at far-right gatherings.
The litigation that should embarrass Nunes will quickly become a point of great pride, and because our politics are too often twisted, the effort will almost certainly elevate his status as a cause celebre in Republican circles.
And when a judge throws out the case as meritless, it will likely lead to a new phase of fundraising in which the California Republican rails against the liberal judiciary that refused to punish those who had the audacity to hurt the poor congressman’s feelings.
In reality, a lawsuit like this should do lasting harm to Nunes’ reputation. In contemporary Republican politics, however, it will probably work wonders for his career.