RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Social media giant Twitter has been dismissed from a defamation dispute filed by Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, pushing the outspoken conservative’s hopes of exposing anonymous Twitter accounts even further out of reach.
Nunes first filed the lawsuit — one of six defamation claims in courts around the country — early last year. And while other parties remain in the case, including a Republican strategist, Nunes, through his Charlottesville-based lawyer Stephen Biss, made quite clear their hope was to find out who tweets behind the mask of @DevinCow.
The opinion, released Wednesday afternoon and written by Henrico County Judge John Marshall, points to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Passed by Congress in 1996, the federal law says online platforms cannot be held liable for the content users post while also empowering them to moderate content as needed.
In his 4-page opinion, Marshall said the law granted Twitter the protection it had long claimed it was granted.
“The court must look to [section 230] and the caselaw interpreting the act and analyze plaintiff’s allegations to determine if Twitter has immunity,” he wrote. “Plaintiff seeks to have the court treat Twitter as a publisher or speaker of the content…. the court refuses to do so.”
Marshall based his decision on Zeran and Nemet, two cases cited by Twitter’s lawyer, Patrick Carome of the Washington firm Wilmer Hale, during oral arguments held just under two weeks ago.
Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the public interest litigation group Public Citizen, said it was important for a state judge to use these cases as precedent.
“It points the way for other trial judges faced with this sort of problem; letting Section 230 to work as intended, protecting entities like Twitter from the burdens of having to litigate what is plainly a situation in which it’s going to be immune,” Levy said in an interview.
Twitter was joined by two anonymous user’s accounts as defendants, one claiming to be one of Nunes’ cows and the other his mother. While Biss argued the two accounts could even face criminal defamation charges for the comments they made against the elected official, he needed Twitter to stay on as a defendant to reach the possible, albeit unlikely, goal of getting them revealed.
Now, with the company in the clear, Levy says that unmasking will be nearly impossible. Nunes would have to file additional claims in Virginia, work through the state’s unmasking laws and then move the case back to California where both he and Twitter are based. There he’d face a more powerful Anti-SLAPP, strategic lawsuit against public participation law, which would almost assuredly dismiss the case, forcing him to pay staggering legal fees for the unknown tweeters.
“We’re going to hear a lot of blather and complaints but we’re not going to see anything further,” Levy predicted.
In an email a Twitter spokesperson hailed the judge’s decision.
“Twitter enforces the Twitter Rules impartially for everyone who uses our service around the world, regardless of their background or political affiliation,” they said. “We are constantly improving our efforts to serve the public conversation and will continue to be transparent with the public.”
Nunes did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
An avid Twitter user with over 1 million followers, the California congressman appears to have tweeted his intention to leave the platform since the opinion’s release.