First of all, I should introduce myself: I’m Jeet Heer, a contributing editor at The New Republic. I’m filling in for Josh as he takes a much-deserved break. Having followed TPM from its earliest days as a blog covering the 2000 (!) election and its aftermath, I’m honored to be here.
I wanted to flag a story from Monday night that is both comically absurd but also has a sinister side: Republican Congressman Devin Nunes’ announced lawsuit against Twitter and three Twitter accounts who he claims have defamed him.
You can read Nunes’ complaint here. Much of the suit reads like pure dada nonsense, especially since Nunes is going after two joke accounts with the handles Devin Nunes’ Mom and Devin Nunes’ Cow. This leads to the immortal line, “Like Devin Nunes’ Mom, Devin Nunes’ Cow engaged in a vicious defamation campaign against Nunes.”
Among the allegedly defamatory statements made by Devin Nunes’ Cow was the claim that “Devin’s boots are full of manure. He’s udder-ly worthless and its pasture time to move him to prison.” Aside from taking umbrage at bad bovine puns, Nunes also floats the theory, popular on the whack-a-doodle right, that Twitter is censoring conservatives. The mix of wounded pride and paranoia makes the entire complaint a perfect example of contemporary Republican touchiness.
As tempting as it is to simply mock the suit, it also has to be said that it is part of something more disturbing: the rising use of legal actions, especially by right-wing forces, to shut down political opponents. As Susan Hennessey, a legal scholar at the Brookings Institute, noted, the suit “is a politician attempting to abuse the judicial process in order to scare people out of criticizing him by proving that he can cost them a lot in legal fees.”
Peter Thiel’s support of a suit that destroyed Gawker is the prime example. Thiel’s success seems to have emboldened the right in general. Amid Trump’s chatter about wanting to loosen libel laws and similar talk from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, we’ve seen lawsuits or threatened lawsuits from Joe Arpaio, Sarah Palin, and Roy Moore, among others. As with the Nunes suit, many of these seem like jokes, but they have a goal of chilling speech.