Twitter is not liable for allegedly slanderous comments anonymously written about a California congressman on the social media platform, Henrico County Circuit Judge John Marshall ruled this week.
After deciding in the fall that Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., had standing to file suit in Virginia against the San Francisco-based company, the judge dismissed the claims against it Wednesday, citing a federal law that shields social media companies from liability for what its users say.
Nunes “seeks to have the court treat Twitter as the publisher or speaker of the content provided by others based on its allowing or not allowing certain content to be on its internet platform,” Marshall said in his ruling. “The court refuses to do so.”
A Republican strategist who previously lived in Virginia and two parody accounts purporting to be his mother and his imaginary cow are still defendants in the case. Nunes alleges in his suit that Liz Mair, the strategist, coordinated an online smear campaign against him with the two accounts as part of a politically motivated conspiracy.
Marshall’s decision to dismiss Twitter from the case is based on a federal law that some U.S. lawmakers want to erase or overhaul because of the power it has given to large tech companies like Twitter and Facebook.
Originally adopted as part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a provision of the law known as Section 230 has recently drawn scrutiny from conservative politicians like Nunes who say it allows social media companies to censor their opinions and permit slander against them.
After Twitter “fact-checked” his claims about mail-in ballots in this year’s presidential election leading to fraud, President Trump last month tweeted “REVOKE 230!” in reference to the law.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said there have been calls to amend the law as a means to break up the power of large tech companies, but that it’s unlikely that Congress will take action this year.
“It was passed at a time when tech companies didn’t seem like they would be so intrusive and social media wasn’t as important,” he said. “While it’s controversial, it’s still the law.”
Marshall’s dismissal of the case came a month after U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne moved lawsuits Nunes filed against The Washington Post and CNN to other jurisdictions.
Echoing Payne’s ruling in those cases, Tobias said he suspects Nunes is filing defamation suits in Virginia under the impression that he can make a stronger case here rather than in California or elsewhere.
“I suspect that he thinks our libel and slander laws will better protect him. There might be another purpose, but I think that’s what he’s looking for,” Tobias said. “But Virginia judges don’t want their courts to be cluttered with cases that don’t belong.”
Nunes’ attorney and a representative from his congressional office did not respond to request for comment.
Nunes has also filed a libel suit against McClatchy Co. — which owns the Fresno Bee and several newspapers across the nation — in Albemarle County. A hearing in that case is scheduled for August.