Commentary

Court Ruling In Nunes Suit May Shape Law On Reporter Tweets

A federal appeals court this week revived a libel suit against Hearst Magazine and reporter Ryan Lizza, ruling that he may have defamed Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., by tweeting an Esquire story after the congressman had filed the lawsuit. The decision may help to eventually clarify whether tweeting a story can be considered malicious, exposing a journalist to legal liability.

Nunes had sued Hearst and Lizza for defamation over a 2018 story, “Devin Nunes’s Family Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret,” about how the congressman’s family had moved its dairy farm from California to Iowa. The story cited unnamed sources who claimed the farm relied on undocumented workers, belying the congressman’s hard line on immigration.

Nunes’ suit included claims the article committed “defamation by implication” in presenting facts that hinted at the “politically explosive secret.”
A federal judge in northern Iowa last year dismissed the case, ruling the article wasn’t defamatory and that Nunes hadn’t proved Esquire had showed "actual malice" by publishing false statements about a public figure.
Nunes appealed that ruling to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which this week agreed with most of the district court’s judgment and determined that the article wasn’t defamatory. Yet the appeals court also said Lizza republished the story by tweeting a link to it, raising the issue in defamation law about evidence of reckless disregard.
The complaint “adequately alleges that Lizza intended to reach and actually reached a new audience by publishing a tweet about Nunes and a link to the article," according to the ruling by Judge Steven Colloton. "Lizza tweeted the article in November 2019 after Nunes filed this lawsuit and denied the article’s implication. The pleaded facts are suggestive enough to render it plausible that Lizza, at that point, engaged in 'the purposeful avoidance of the truth.'"
Tweeting a link to a story shouldn’t be considered republication for purposes of a ruling on libel, especially since the court upheld an earlier ruling that found the story wasn’t defamatory.

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Still, any effort to prevent reporters from referring to prior stories would have a chilling effect on their coverage of public figures — and should be discouraged by the courts.

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