Commentary

Nunes Suit Against 'Esquire' Should Be Dismissed

A lawyer for Hearst Magazines last week asked a federal judge to dismiss a $75 million libel suit brought by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the congressman who has sued several news organizations in the past 13 months. The case is without merit, and should be dismissed.

Last year, Nunes filed the suit against reporter Ryan Lizza and Hearst, publisher of Esquire magazine. He claimed the publication defamed him in a September 2018 storythat examined why he and others would "conspire to hide the fact" that his family had sold its farm in California and opened a dairy in Iowa.

>The 6,900-word article described Nunes as President Donald Trump's "most important defender in Congress." It also said the Nunes family might be so secretive because Midwestern dairies "tend to run on undocumented labor," suggesting Nunes is a hypocrite for supporting anti-immigrant Trump.

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>Jonathan Donnellan, an attorney representing Lizza and Hearst, last week argued in a hearing that the article wasn't defamatory and that public officials like Nunes should expect the press to look into their activities.

Nunes’ father and brother, who also sued Esquire over the story, may have a stronger case, considering that neither is a public official. Libel complaintsby public figures like Nunes have a higher burden of proof, such as malicious disregard for the truth. Lizza's story may have been a hit piece on Nunes, but it's not clear that the story contained outright falsehoods. 

Steven Biss, the lawyer for Nunes, claimed the Esquirestory harmed Nunes by implying he had behaved unethically. Such charges exposed Nunes to possible punishment by congressional committees, Biss said.

Biss also wants the court to compel Lizza to reveal the identities of unnamed sources cited in the article. Donnellan argued against that request. "This lawsuit is a fishing expedition,” Donnellan said. “It’s meant to keep Esquire, Hearst and others from publishing anything about Devin Nunes.”

Judge C.J. Williams, who is overseeing the case in Iowa’s Northern District Court, said he would weigh the arguments and decide on dismissal. Given that the suit doesn't prove a reckless disregard for the truth, I expect it to be dismissed.

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