Update 8/5/2020: A federal court dismissed Representative Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) lawsuit after finding none of the 11 allegedly defamatory statements actionable.
On September 30, 2019, Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA) filed a defamation suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa against reporter Ryan Lizza and Hearst Magazines. The complaint alleges that Lizza’s article in Esquire, “Devin Nunes’s Family Farm is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret,” is made up of false and defamatory statements published with the specific intent to harm the congressman’s reputation.
“On September 30, 2018, Lizza and Esquire knowingly and recklessly injured Plaintiff’s reputation with a scandalous hit piece that intentionally disparaged Plaintiff and his family, accused Plaintiff of dishonesty, deceit, conspiracy, and unethical practices, and severely impugned his integrity and skills as a United States Congressman,” the complaint states.
For public officials to prove defamation, they are required to demonstrate that the defendant published false, defamatory information. In addition, it is not enough for public officials to prove that a journalist’s article contained false statements; they also have to prove that the journalist published falsehoods intentionally or with reckless disregard for the truth.
Lizza’s article focused on how the Nunes’s dairy farm business “secretly” moved from California to Iowa in 2006, and that dairy farmers in Sibley, Iowa—the town they moved to—rely on undocumented labor. Two sources in Lizza’s piece say they have first-hand knowledge that the Nunes’s dairy farm relies, “at least in part, on undocumented labor.”
Nunes’s complaint does not address whether or not his family’s farm uses undocumented labor, but instead focuses on the suggestion that the congressman is hiding secrets from the public, and that he is involved in his family’s dairy farm business.
“Plaintiff does not own an interest in his family’s dairy farm in Iowa, never has, and is not involved in any way in its operation’,” the complaint says. “The Lizza Hit Piece falsely accuses Plaintiff, the ‘head of the House Intelligence Committee and one of President Trump’s biggest defenders,’ of being involved in covering-up a ‘secret’, to wit.”
Nunes is asking for $75 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages.