U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

California Congressman Devin Nunes files defamation suit against newspaper for its coverage

Incident Details

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) speaks in March at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Nunes is suing newspaper company McClatchy in a $150 million defamation lawsuit.

— REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
October 20, 2020 - Update

Congressman Nunes drops $150 million lawsuit against bankrupt McClatchy Company

Former California Rep Devin Nunes dropped his $150 million libel case against The McClatchy Company on Oct. 20, 2020, approximately eight months after the newspaper company filed for bankruptcy.

McClatchy, which owns The Fresno Bee, was targeted by a defamation lawsuit after a 2018 expose by The Bee uncovered a party where Napa Valley wine investors took cocaine. Nunes claimed the piece — which did not say he had been present at the party but did name him as a partial-investor in the company — constitued “character assassination.”

In February 2020, McClatchy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and ultimately underwent an administrative overhaul.

The Visalia Times Delta reported that Nunes dropped the suit against McClatchy that October, citing the company’s recent battle with bankruptcy. Nunes cannot file claims against the media company’s new owners but he can refile the case against the bankrupt McClatchy at a later date.

Neither Nunes nor his attorney, Steven Biss, responded to requests for comment.

April 9, 2019

California Representative Devin Nunes has filed a $150 million defamation lawsuit agaiont The McClatchy Company, which owns The Fresno Bee, arguing that its reporting on the congressman constituted “character assassination.”

The April 2019 lawsuit focuses on an exposé The Bee published in May 2018, about a yacht party in which Napa Valley wine investors took cocaine. Nunes claims that the story was defamatory because it implied that he was involved in the cocaine and sex worker-fueled party. The article does not state that Nunes was present, but it does name him as a partial investor in the company.

Nunes’ lawsuit accuses McClatchy and the reporter, MacKenzie Mays, of unethical journalism:

“The Defendants in this case abandoned the role of journalist, and chose to leverage their considerable power to spread falsehoods and to defame the Plaintiff for political and financial gain.”

The McClatchy California Opinion Editors authored a piece in The Bee on April 10 refuting many of Nunes’ core allegations.

The lawsuit also accuses Republican consultant Liz Mair of conspiring with Mays to derail Nunes’ work and “smear” him.

Mair is also a defendant in a secondary defamation lawsuit by Nunes against Twitter and several of its users over parody accounts that he made. Nunes is accusing the social media company of “shadow banning” his tweets, or curtailing the reach of his social media presence.

Mair responded to the Twitter litigation in a USA Today column on April 5.

“It’s vitally important that the entire nation understands what this lawsuit is really about: A sitting member of the U.S. government, specifically, a congressman, is trying to stifle free speech — mine, yours and every other American’s — by using litigation as a cudgel to bully and intimidate,” Mair wrote.

During an April 10 interview on the Fox News show Fox & Friends, Nunes accused McClatchy of being the “biggest perpetrator of fake news,” and said that he intended to “go after” other news outlets with defamation outlets.

“McClatchy is one of the worst offenders of this,” Nunes said. “But we're coming after the rest of them.”

The same day, CNN reported on an internal memo and statement from McClatchy, which vowed to defend The Bee.

“The lawsuit represents a baseless attack on local journalism and a free press,” read McClatchy’s statement. “At a time when local journalism is facing more pressing and urgent challenges, the lawsuit is an unproductive distraction and a misuse of the judicial system.”

Nunes’ office did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].