Twitter is fighting a Justice Department subpoena seeking information about the user of an account that routinely parodies Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who has spent recent years unsuccessfully seeking to unmask such users so he can sue them for defamation.
In urging a federal judge in Washington, to quash a subpoena, the social media platform argued in court papers filed that it believed the Justice Department might be aiding Nunes’ numerous efforts to expose such anonymous critics. The Justice Department subpoenaed Twitter in November seeking information on the user behind the parody account @NunesAlt.
“Twitter is concerned that this subpoena is but another mechanism to attack its users’ First Amendment rights,” the company’s attorneys wrote in a March court filing made public Monday at the company’s request. “It appears to Twitter that the subpoena may be related to Congressman Devin Nunes’s repeated efforts to unmask individuals behind parody accounts critical of him.
Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell gave the Justice Department until Wednesday to redact and make public its response to Twitter’s motion. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment. A spokesman for Nunes (R-Tulare) did not respond to a request for comment.
Twitter issued a statement Monday saying it “is committed to protecting the freedom of expression for those who use our service. We have a strong track record and take seriously the trust placed in us to work to protect the private information of the people on Twitter.”
The company had also asked Howell in its court filings to lift a court order obtained by the Justice Department that prevented Twitter from disclosing the existence of the subpoena to anyone other than its attorneys. That 90-day gag order appears to have expired.
It is not clear why the Trump-era Justice Department was seeking information about @NunesAlt, which describes itself in its profile as the “no-so-proud alt-mom of prolific Libel Tourist, and part-time Congressman, Devin Nunes. (Yes, it’s parody) Probably hammered.” The Justice Department, at the time the subpoena was issued, was overseen by then-Atty. Gen. William Barr. Nunes is a Trump political ally.
Hayden M. Schottlaender, an attorney representing Twitter, wrote in a declaration made public Monday that an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington told him in January the subpoena was issued as part of a criminal investigation into “threatening communications in interstate commerce.” The Justice Department, Schottlaender said, declined to provide further information.
Prosecutors must generally suspect a crime has been committed before issuing a subpoena. Subpoenaed information in criminal investigations is confidential and protected by strict secrecy rules until a grand jury issues an indictment and often is not disclosed unless it is presented as evidence at a trial. Otherwise, such information is rarely made public.
In its filing, Twitter sought to link the subpoena to Nunes’ legal efforts to unmask users and to sue them for defamation. It tallied at least nine lawsuits brought by Nunes in the last two years “against individuals, the media and one research and intelligence firm.”
The user whose information was being sought by the Justice Department, @NunesAlt, responded to Twitter’s motion by tweeting: “This is the closest thing I’m gonna get to a Mother’s Day card.” The user declined to comment further after being contacted by The Times.
The account originated as a parody of Nunes’ mother, under the account name @DevinNunesMom, which was suspended by Twitter in 2019, the company wrote in court filings. It is unclear why that account was suspended, but the @NunesAlt user has confirmed it had previously operated it.
Nunes in 2019 sued @DevinNunesMom and another parody account, @DevinCow, which called Nunes “a treasonous cowpoke.” The lawmaker alleged the accounts had defamed him, ruined his reputation and caused him to win his 2018 election by a narrower margin than expected.
Most of the suits were withdrawn by Nunes or tossed out of court.
Anonymous Twitter critics began dogging Nunes as he rose to prominence in 2017 as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. From that post, he was tasked with investigating accusations of Russian interference in the previous year’s presidential election.
Nunes quickly found himself at the center of a political firestorm in Washington over his quick release of a controversial memo dismissing the allegations and clearing the president’s campaign of any wrongdoing. Those conclusions were disputed in a similar memo released once Democrats took control of the committee, as well as by the special counsel’s Russia investigation.