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ACLU Supports Anonymous Twitter Users Sued in Henrico by California Rep. Devin Nunes

Reported by VPM News Intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has gotten involved in a defamation lawsuit filed by California Representative Devin Nunes against Twitter in Henrico. Nunes is suing to reveal the identity of two parody Twitter accounts that have criticized him. 

The suit was filed in March and was followed by subpoenas in late October from Nunes’s attorney against Twitter and the law firm representing one of the anonymous Twitter accounts, Devin Nunes’ Cow. The subpoena requests documents that would reveal the identity of the anonymous users. 

Twitter and the user behind Devin Nunes’ Cow asked the court in November to reject Nunes’ subpoenas. This prompted the ACLU of Virginia to file a friend-of-the-court brief this month urging the Henrico Circuit Court to maintain the defendants’ anonymity. 

“Once you unmask someone's identity, there's no going back from that,” said Eden Hailman, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia. “It means that a public official who wants to find out who their anonymous critics are, they only need to file a bare bones case in Virginia alleging defamation and then they would be able to obtain the identity of their anonymous critics.”

Heilman says this case presents the state with an opportunity to reevaluate its legal standards for maintaining a person’s anonymity in the face of defamation accusations.

“What the court has to do in this situation is to develop sort of a balancing test between making sure that anonymous speakers have their first amendment rights protected, and can’t be uncovered or unmasked at the whim of anybody,” she said. “But on the flip side, the courts need to make sure that if somebody is really truly being defamed, that somebody can't just hide behind an anonymous platform and not be subject to any accountability.”

It is unclear why Nunes, a California legislator, chose to sue Twitter, a company based in San Francisco, in Henrico. The lawsuit states that Twitter is registered to conduct business in Virginia, and that the site reaches millions of Virginian users. 

Heilman says Virginia observes many defamation lawsuits due to its relaxed legislation on strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as anti-SLAPP laws.

“These are laws that prevent people from filing frivolous defamation cases… Virginia is one of the states that has weaker SLAPP laws, and so sometimes people will seek out certain states that have weaker laws in that regard so that they can move forward with cases that may be dismissed much earlier and other jurisdictions,” Heilman said.

Nunes accuses the other anonymous Twitter account in the case, Devin Nunes’ Mom, of having “hijacked Nunes’ name” and “falsely impersonate Nunes’ mother.” The account has since been removed from Twitter.

The congressman is suing for $250 million. The requests to quash the subpoenas remain pending and a hearing date has not yet been scheduled.

VPM News reached out with a request for comment, but congressman's attorney and press secretary didn't respond in time for the broadcast and publication. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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