Silicon Valley Billionaire Peter Thiel Accused Of Financing Hulk Hogan's Ridiculous Lawsuits Against Gawker

from the wtf,-peter? dept

So here’s a crazy and unfortunate story. On Monday evening, the NY Times posted a rather weird story suggesting that there was someone with a grudge against Gawker funding the various lawsuits against the site, including Hulk Hogan’s multiple lawsuits (he recently filed another one, even more ridiculous than the first — which resulted in a $115 million verdict against Gawker that hopefully will get tossed on appeal). The NYT piece was weird in that it was pure innuendo — just saying that Gawker’s Nick Denton was increasingly sure that someone who really disliked the site was funding the lawsuits. It was surprising that the NY Times ran it given the lack of anything beyond speculation and rumor. And then, about 24 hours later, Forbes publishes a story saying that it’s well-known billionaire Peter Thiel funding the lawsuit (warning: Forbes’ ridiculous anti-adblock policy means you may not be able to read that article):

Peter Thiel, a PayPal cofounder and one of the earliest backers of Facebook, has been secretly covering the expenses for Hulk Hogan?s lawsuits against online news organization Gawker Media. According to people familiar with the situation who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Thiel, a cofounder and partner at Founders Fund, has played a lead role in bankrolling the cases Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hogan, brought against New York-based Gawker. Hogan is being represented by Charles Harder, a prominent Los Angeles-based lawyer.

First off, it’s perhaps no surprise that Thiel is very anti-Gawker. Lots of people dislike Gawker, and many of them have really good reasons to dislike Gawker. Its Silicon Valley coverage, in particular, was often terrible and basically just wrong. Its Valleywag publication often went for snark and conspiracy over reality. In Thiel’s case, he has a much more direct reason for hating Gawker. In 2007, the publication outed him for no reason at all other than because it wanted to do so.

That said: this is insane. Thiel has his quirks, and has a reputation for supporting extreme political causes (that then, unfortunately, lead many outside of Silicon Valley to think his views are representative of the Valley), but funding a lawsuit (or possibly a series of lawsuits) that is flat out designed to undermine the First Amendment goes beyond what most people would expect. And that’s doubly true given that his lawsuits against Gawker could have serious damage on free speech on the internet. It’s one thing to hate Gawker and to wish its demise. It’s another thing entirely to fund a series of lawsuits that chill expression online.

For what it’s worth, it’s also worth noting (as both of the articles linked above do), that the same lawyer who represented Hogan, and who Thiel is allegedly paying, is also the lawyer handling Shiva Ayyadurai’s ridiculous lawsuit against Gawker, which cites the Hogan case for support. In our write-up of that ridiculous lawsuit, we noted that it looked like Ayyadurai was inspired by Hogan’s victory, but we didn’t realize that it was the same lawyer, and possibly funded from the same source.

For what it’s worth, there are questions about if other lawsuits against Gawker are also being funded by Thiel, and you have to at least wonder if that includes Chuck Johnson’s ridiculous defamation lawsuit against Gawker. As you may recall, Johnson struck out in Missouri, but filed the identical suit in California. Ayyadurai’s lawsuit cites Johnson’s lawsuit as proof of Gawker’s pattern of bad behavior, even though both lawsuits are ridiculous. But it’s also worth noting that Johnson and Thiel actually appear to have some political similarities, including both becoming strong Donald Trump supporters (Thiel is, famously, a Trump delegate, while Johnson says he’s an alternate).

As a bit of an aside, how much more terrifying is it now when you hear Trump talk about “opening up” libel laws to make it easier to sue the press — or him praising the district court win by Hogan over Gawker?

Thiel has obviously had quite a bit of success on the internet with Paypal, and then leveraging that into the first money into Facebook, along with helping to found Palantir (though that company is raising questions lately as well). He’s also funded lots of other companies and famously supported Ron Paul and certain libertarian causes. But a lawsuit against an online publication solely out of vindictiveness (even if his hatred of the publication is for perfectly valid reasons) is a terrible, terrible idea that seems to go against his supposed libertarian views. It’s also just petty and vindictive, and only cements in the misleading idea that Silicon Valley is full of ego-maniacal billionaires for whom the ends always justify the means.

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Comments on “Silicon Valley Billionaire Peter Thiel Accused Of Financing Hulk Hogan's Ridiculous Lawsuits Against Gawker”

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Stacy Pennington says:

The only thing ridiculous here is I took the time to read another Masnick “everything less left wing than me is extreme” thumbsucker. As the thesis seems to be that funding a lawsuit goes against libertarian principles, it would have been nice to see an actual argument to the that effect. But then again, reason is not really Masnick’s stong suit.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why don’t people who whine about the articles here bother to actually state what’s wrong with them? Is stating what you’re complaining about really that hard? Also, that “thesis” is not how I read it.

Perhaps instead of bitching you might want to participate in a discussion here, and maybe change some minds instead of coming across as a mardy fool with nothing to say?

JMT says:

Re: Re: Re:

So Mike writes 700 words explaining his views on the topic, which you ridiculously boil down to simply calling everything stupid and ridiculous, and then suggest that it’s actually Mike who’s stupid and ridiculous, without offering any rebuttal at all. There’s irony here alright, but you’re looking in the wrong direction.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As the thesis seems to be that funding a lawsuit goes against libertarian principles, it would have been nice to see an actual argument to the that effect.

No, the thesis is that using the government (laws, courts) to suppress speech you dislike is what seems to go against libertarian principles.

I thought that was clear and apologize if it was not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Tired blather...

I disagree, although I can see why you’d think that. At the core of the problem is that Gawker has a very bad reputation for being skeevy in how it researches its stories. So much so, that comparisons to Fox News aren’t really wide of the mark, like you’d expect them to be.

Yes, I agree that the lawsuit is ridiculous; but that doesn’t mean the the case doesn’t have merit. And honestly, this is one of the very few times that I want both parties to lose.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Tired blather...

Please don’t imply that winning in court proves something is just or correct.

There remain the options that:
1 – our laws had unintended consequences
2 – our laws have intended consequences, but were manipulated and are not just
3 – the court messed up
4 – the full legal process is not complete
5 – relevant evidence was suppressed
6 – one side successfully lied or faked or suppressed evidence

etc, etc. Sure, a trial is legally conclusive, but OJ got off, and lots of innocent people are in jail. False positives and false negatives abound.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wealth is Truth

If you want to know who someone really is, give them a billion dollars. That will free them from the constraints of social norms, leaving them only limited by their own principles or lack there of.

Turns out that most people have pretty weak principles. Or at least most people who acquire a billion dollars.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Wealth is Truth

Yes, it matters. Most people will never be billionaires simply because they aren’t willing to be the sort of person you have to be to accumulate a billion dollars.

So you can’t say that most people would behave badly if they got that money, because their principles would prevent them from getting that money in the first place.

JMT says:

Re: Re: Wealth is Truth

Or maybe never had those principles to begin with.

I’ve always strongly felt that in order reach such incredible levels of wealth, being really smart or having great ideas is simply not enough. You also have to be an asshole, or at least have some asshole-ish qualities, even if they’re not obvious to many. In modern Western capitalist systems you don’t get that rich by being the nice guy.

I.T. Guy says:

Re: Re:

“Had it coming?” How so? Does TMZ “have it coming” too? What about the Enquirer?

Despite your loathing for Gawker the fact remains that letting the government decide what is newsworthy is a dangerous precedent to set.

I don’t feel bad for Hogan, he shouldn’t have been cheating on his wife. It was karma. Not only was he cheating it was in a weird “Hey can you fuk my wife” kinda way. Hulk was more mad he got caught rather than feeling bad for his betrayal.

“Hogan blames Linda for practically making him have sex with his friend’s wife, saying she was verbally and emotionally abusive to him.”
Uh huh.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I favor freedom of political, academic, and artistic speech, but what real loss is imposed by an “invasion of privacy” ban on posting sexual videos of adults without their consent?

The issue, as I wrote in my original article, is that the case focused on whether or not the story was “newsworthy.” And I have serious concerns when we allow a jury and/or courts to be making editorial decisions after the fact over what is, or is not, newsworthy.

I agree that, personally, posting such videos is disgusting and sickening and I have no problem with people shunning or shaming Gawker for posting them. But I worry a great deal when it reaches the point where the courts then are making editorial decisions for publications. To me that seems to clearly violate the First Amendment.

Regret says:

Re: Re: First Amendment

Mike, a serious question: Is this an accurate portrayal of the First Amendment? The text of the First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws that abridge the freedom of speech, or of the press. Can this really be extrapolated to prohibit (or even discourage) courts from adjudicating speech-related disputes between private parties? I understand the arguments in favor of a free and vigorous press, but am not sure how this type of case falls to a First Amendment violation.

Robert Beckman (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: First Amendment

This is an important question that hasn’t been answered, so I will.

TL;DR – courts adjudicate laws that legislatures pass. Legislatures can’t pass laws that violate the 1st amendment, so courts can’t rule in ways that would allow them to.

First, the 1st Amendment only binds Congress, so you’re right, State courts aren’t bound yet. But the 14th Amendment has been construed by the Supreme Court to “incorporate” parts of the first 10 amendments against the state, such that they also limit each States powers too. In this manner, the 1st Amendment applies to each State through the 14th Amendment. Additional cases conclude that political subdivisions of a State derive their power from the State, and so are also bound by the 1st (via the 14th).

Now that we’re clear that the 1st Amendment applies to all levels of government, we need to see the link to how it applies to this case. Hulk Hogan sued under a combination of legal theories, which I’ll simplify by calling them them all a Privacy Law (the simplification won’t matter, since they all get treated the same here anyway). The (simplified) Privacy Law says that anyone whose privacy has been violated and suffers damages may sue in court for those damages from the person who damaged them by releasing private information. Hogan’s privacy was violated, and he sues. But here’s how the 1st Amendment ties in, “Congress shall make no law…” says that at the outset that any law that Congress (or any State or State subdivision under the 14th) makes that abridges the freedom of speech is void ab initio as ultra vires (fancy latin for never existed and beyond their power).

Now suppose that Congress had never passes such a law, and Hogan sues anyway. In this scenario, there is no statutory law that says he can get damages. But no, says Hogan, I’m suing under the common law theory of torts, where I can recover for actual damages from anyone who has damaged me. This part is a little more complicated as torts (injuries caused by another person) vary a lot depending on intent and the history of each state, so I’ll summarize it even more. When the US first formed (including the original Confederation) we didn’t have any statutory laws (they’d all been England’s – ignore Louisiana as it’s French, but same idea), so the judges at the time said we’ll continue to use the old English Common Law, which was the law as spoken by the judges of England, and defined general duties and obligations under things like contracts, torts, land, and a few other areas. So when the constitution came around, we had a set of background principles of law we were already following, and that’s what Hogan says he’s suing under.

But under this background principle we only get a default set of rules – rules to use when the legislature hasn’t specified anything else. So when we pass the 1st Amendment, it supersedes any other Common Laws that don’t adhere to it. Under the old Common Law theories, Hogan may have had a case, but under Common Law as amended by the 1st (and 14th) Amendments, he doesn’t.

So under statutory law (i.e. Congress shall make no law…) Hogan has to lose, and under Common Law (old English law) Hogan has to lose….. as long as the court decides that Gawker was engaged in …”the freedom of speech…” Under current law that’s almost definitely a yes, but lower level state judges tend to abdicate their obligations to rule on constitutional issues, requiring escalation through state and then federal appellate courts.

Now you may ask, but isn’t this a purely private dispute between Hogan and Gawker? It was, until Hogan asked the government to join his side. In essence, any civil lawsuit isn’t really just between the two parties, but rather is one party (the plaintiff) asking the government to enforce something against the other (the respondent). The result of a lawsuit like that is having the government do something. If it were truly a purely private function then Gawker could tell Hogan to pound sand with his $100M verdict – only because Hogan can use the power of the State to enforce that verdict and seize Gawkers assets brings the 1st amendment into play.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

But a lawsuit against an online publication solely out of vindictiveness (even if his hatred of the publication is for perfectly valid reasons) is a terrible, terrible idea that seems to go against his supposed libertarian views. It’s also just petty and vindictive, and only cements in the misleading idea that Silicon Valley is full of ego-maniacal billionaires for whom the ends always justify the means.

The ends justifying the means is a core precept for libertarians. Every ideology has a set of core values, an “Ideal Man” that it holds up to be emulated. For libertarianism, the Ideal Man is a sociopath, a person who believes he does not have to live by the rules of the society that supports him.

It’s a bit ironic. One of the founders of PayPal reinvested his billions in trying to solve some of the most serious problems facing the world. Another, it seems, took his money and set out to make them worse.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

While it’s true that many of them are like that to a greater or lesser extent, they’re not all like that.

Libertarianism as an ideology is actually quite vast; the more recent right-wing corporatism is the thing you’re decrying and I happen to agree with you on that point. However, not all Libertarians are corporatists or hand-wringing voluntaryists who stand there asking why you don’t just vote with your wallet if you’re not happy with the situation you’re in. The smart ones tend to take the public interest into consideration in recognition of the fact that it’s impossible to be completely independent, each in our own private walled garden, particularly in an urban environment.

Dreddsnik says:

“The ends justifying the means is a core precept for *POLITICAL GROUP* . Every ideology has a set of core values, an “Ideal Man” that it holds up to be emulated. For *POLITCAL GROUP* , the Ideal Man is a sociopath, a person who believes he does not have to live by the rules of the society that supports him.”

Fixed that for you.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Outed in the Bay Area??

While I support any person’s right to keep their sexual preferences private, I’m surprised that one could “out” somebody living in the Bay Area in 2007.

While we certainly are impatiently waiting for the rest of the world to catch up, the social cost of being gay in the Bay Area is as ‘near zero’ as the cost of reproduction of an MP3. Isn’t it?

I suppose I’m probably the victim of wishful thinking. There’s always enough bigots to make life unpleasant for others.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

If hes paying for the “EMAIL” creators case, perhaps someone in his inner circle needs to point out hes gone off the cliff.

On the upside, all of this insanity he is funding will eventually open a door for someone to sue him for something as ridiculous. He will decry it and claim how wrong it is… ignoring that he created the atmosphere where it thrived.

Anonymous Coward says:

So if I dont like a person, it’s ok if their privacy is stripped from them and pictures and videos of them naked are posted online, their sexuality outed against their wishes, etc and then when those publications are ordered by a court to remove the materials, it’s ok for them to brazenly defy the court.

Hogans case against Gawker was as legitimate as you can get. Who helped pay the bills for it doesn’t matter. Now, if someone is also paying to generate a lot of frivolous cases, that’s bad, but Hogans doesn’t fit with the rest.

I can’t imagine anyone defending gawkers actions with regards to hulk hogan.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ok Mike, so Hogans lawsuit is so ridiculous huh? Why don’t you offer up your own sex tape then? His privacy was invaded, and profited off of. And you have the balls to condemn him and call him ridiculous. How dare a man not want his sex life paraded around and ridiculed.

I can’t believe TechDirt allows such a worthless thing to write for them.

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