Federal Judge Dismisses Nunes Defamation Case Over Iowa Farm

The judge found the allegedly defamatory statements in a 2018 Esquire article were either true, matters of opinion, not directly related to the congressman or otherwise protected by the First Amendment.

Then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., arrives at the Capitol in Washington in 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (CN) — A federal judge in Iowa dismissed California Congressman Devin Nunes’ libel suit against Esquire magazine and journalist Ryan Lizza over an article saying Nunes was hiding a “politically explosive secret” involving his family’s dairy farm in the Hawkeye State.

Nunes, a Republican who has represented California’s 22nd Congressional District since 2003, filed a lawsuit last year in Sioux City federal court accusing Lizza and Esquire of publishing false and defamatory statements about Nunes.

The congressman asked for $75 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages. In January, the Nunes family filed another suit in Iowa federal court making similar claims on behalf of the congressman’s father and brothers. That suit is pending.

U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams of Iowa’s Northern District dismissed all of Nunes’ claims in a 48-page order issued late Wednesday. Williams, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote that the allegedly defamatory statements in the Esquire article were admittedly true, opinion, did not directly concern Nunes or were protected by the First Amendment.

The judge also denied the Esquire and Lizza’s motion to apply the California Anti-SLAPP statute, which allows defendants to file a special motion to attack defamation suits aimed at chilling free speech. Williams said the California statute is preempted by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Nunes claimed the September 2018 Esquire story, headlined “Devin Nunes’s Family Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret,” was filled with errors. The complaint, which repeatedly referred to the article as “the Lizza hit piece,” called it a “legion of lies” that “falsely states or implies that plaintiff owned an interest in his family’s farm in Sibley, Iowa, and that plaintiff was involved in hiding a ‘politically explosive secret.’”

The article questioned why the Nuneses and others would “conspire to hide the fact” that the family had sold its farm in California and moved to Iowa. Lizza, who is now Politico’s chief Washington correspondent, also described being followed by members of Nunes’ family and says two sources told him that the dairy — called NuStar Farms — relied partly upon undocumented labor.

Among false and defamatory statements alleged by Nunes: “Plaintiff used his position as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee as a ‘battering ram to discredit the Russia investigation and protect Donald Trump at all costs, even if it means shredding his own reputation and the independence of the historically nonpartisan committee in the process’.”

Such statements, however, are not defamatory in the context of the “political arena” in which the statements were made, Judge Williams wrote, noting that Nunes was at the time a sitting congressman running for re-election.

In that context, the judge wrote, Esquire and Lizza are protected by U.S. Supreme Court precedents, which recognize “the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Williams wrote that Nunes had not “plausibly alleged defendants acted with actual malice,” a standard set by the Supreme Court in the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision, meaning a defendant published the statement “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

“The context of defendants’ statements, particularly these statements about issues of fundamental public importance, must be construed as opinions entitled to protection in the context of political debate concerning a public official,” the ruling states.

Certain statements in the Esquire article – such as that the farm used undocumented workers – either did not directly concern the congressman, were not alleged by Nunes to be false, or he failed to articulate how they are defamatory, the judge wrote.

Lyrissa Lidsky, law professor and dean of the University of Missouri Law School, said in an interview Thursday that Williams’ ruling represented “a careful analysis” of each of the magazine’s allegedly defamatory statements.

“The judge examined each of the many allegedly defamatory statement to determine whether they were actionable, ultimately concluding that none were,” she said.

Even if any of the statements had been defamatory, Lidsky said, “Nunes’ claim warranted dismissal based on his failure to plead specific facts to create a reasonable inference that defendants acted with actual malice.”

But Lidsky said the congressman’s suit may have achieved its intent, despite this ruling.

“The bigger picture here is that this lawsuit is part of a pattern of behavior by Congressman Nunes to sue his critics for defamation,” she said. “Even when Nunes loses his lawsuit, he wins in part by suing and making a symbolic pronouncement that he disputes the truth of what’s been said about him and is willing to inflict financial pain on his critics by suing them.”

Nunes is represented by Steven S. Biss of Charlottesville, Virginia. The defendants were represented by Hearst Corp. attorney Jonathan R. Donnellan.

Neither Biss nor Donnellan responded to requests for comment Thursday.

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