RICHMOND, Va. — The American Civil Liberties Union, Public Citizen, and ACLU of Virginia today urged a Virginia state court to keep anonymous the identity of “Devin Nunes’ cow,” a Twitter parody account. The friend-of-the-court brief was filed in a defamation lawsuit brought by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Rep. Nunes claims that the cow’s tweets are defamatory, and is seeking to unmask the identity of the individual running the parody account.
The ACLU and Public Citizen note in their brief that the First Amendment guarantees Devin’s cow the right to speak anonymously, that the cow’s tweets about Rep. Nunes are constitutionally protected opinion, and that Rep. Nunes has presented no evidence that Devin’s cow made false statements.
“Rep. Nunes cannot use a meritless defamation claim to unmask an anonymous Twitter critic for expressing a constitutionally protected opinion,” said Brian Hauss, staff attorney with the ACLU’s, Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “Fortunately, the First Amendment prevents the congressman from turning public courts into his own personal Star Chamber.”
“This move is meant to silence critics and stifle free speech,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “Nunes’ subpoena to identify Devin Nunes’ Cow rests on defamation claims about hyperbole and opinion. The tweets from this account are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment.”
The organizations warn that if the court allows Rep. Nunes’ spurious claims to proceed, it will create a dangerous roadmap for public officials to deny citizens the right to speak anonymously, and retaliate against critics. For this reason, the brief notes, numerous courts across the country have set a high bar for unmasking anonymous speakers.
“The Devin Nunes’ cow account is obviously a parody,” said Paul Alan Levy, attorney for Public Citizen. “That’s clear from all the cow-related puns in the tweets. The statements are simply rhetorical insults. They certainly don’t meet the definition of defamation. It’s completely inappropriate for Nunes to ask the court to identify his online critic.”
The brief was filed in the Circuit Court for the County of Henrico, and is available here.