Peter Thiel's Plan To Destroy Gawker Went Way Beyond Hogan's Case
from the this-was-not-a-one-off dept
At this point, I’ve written a bunch of stories about Peter Thiel and his (largely successful) plans to bring down Gawker with lawsuits. I’ve made it clear why I think this is a bad thing — and I’ve learned that many Techdirt readers disagree with me on that (though I appear to have won a few people over to my point of view after a bunch of discussions on this). Part of the issue, I believe, is that there are a few separate things at stake here, all of which get conflated and lumped together when it’s important to look at them separately. There are questions about privacy violations, about the role and protections of the press, about the validity of financing lawsuits and about the way in which the judicial system works. I may try to unpack all of these in a separate post, but I did want to focus on one aspect that I find troubling that often gets dropped from the debate: and it’s that this was not about financing one lawsuit against Gawker, but about finding any way to bring the company down.
Leaving aside, for now, the question of the Hogan lawsuit, it’s becoming abundantly clear that Thiel’s plan was to find any way possible to destroy Gawker through lawsuits. That link goes to a much more detailed report at Forbes (yes: warning that it hates people who use ad blockers), describing how Thiel’s efforts here more or less financed an entire law firm to focus on hunting down anything to attack Gawker over. The article reports that someone working for Thiel approached the lawyer Charles Harder while he was working for another law firm. Soon after, Harder left to launch his own firm — and his first client was Hogan and the first case against Gawker. And since then, Harder or Harder’s fingerprints have shown up in a variety of cases involving Gawker, including labor cases:
Enter the new attorney, Harder, who has made pursuing Gawker a focal point of his new firm, Harder Mirell & Abrams. According to a former employee of Harder?s, someone in Thiel?s camp cold-called Harder at his previous law firm, Wolf Rifkin Shapiro Schulman & Rabkin, ?looking for an entertainment lawyer.? By mid-October 2012 Harder had taken on Hogan as a client. Two months later, even though he was a partner at Wolf Rifkin, the 46-year-old with a southern California tan and bleach-white smile left to set up his own shop, taking the wrestler?s case with him. When Harder announced his new company in January 2013, he made his firm?s first filing on behalf of Hogan.
Beyond Hogan, who filed a second suit against Gawker in May alleging extortion in the dissemination of his sex tape, Harder has taken on at least two other clients with cases involving Gawker?s reporting. In January 2016 Harder filed suit against Gawker on behalf of Ashley Terrill, a writer who originally came to Gawker with a story involving the cofounders of dating app Tinder. Gawker writer Sam Biddle, in turn, published an unfavorable piece on Terrill, highlighting her own alleged inconsistencies and personal issues.
Harder also represents Shiva Ayyadurai, a former lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who claims to have invented e-mail. In 2012 Biddle published a story on Gizmodo that undermined that assertion and called Ayyadurai a fraud.
Now we’ve already discussed in great detail the sheer ridiculousness of Ayyadurai’s case, because as we’ve explained a bunch of times, Ayyadurai didn’t invent email. But the Forbes article notes even more efforts by Harder to help anyone attacking Gawker — sometimes with somewhat questionable means, including leading one person to feel used:
Dating back to January 2013?the same month Harder Mirell was formed?e-mails obtained by FORBES show that Harder was actively vetting unpaid interns for a labor case against Gawker. A former journalist named Phil Linsalata was e-mailing former Gawker interns at the time, saying that he was working on academic research ?focusing on labor conditions in digital media.? After speaking with them on the phone, he would then send them to Harder?s firm for what he framed as a free ?consultation.?
A former Gawker intern named David Matthews even signed a retainer agreement with Harder Mirell. Ultimately Harder passed the interns off to a New York-based law firm specializing in labor claims, which brought a class action against Gawker in June 2013 that was dismissed and later privately settled. Matthews claims that the lawyers misrepresented their intentions and now says he feels ?the sense of being a pawn or an item in a ledger.?
The article also notes another lawsuit, filed by Meanith Huon, against both Gawker and AboveTheLaw for defamation. According to Forbes, Huon agreed to settle the lawsuit against ATL, but continued the one against Gawker on appeal (after the defamation claim was tossed out of court) because he was receiving financial support from Harder:
In a hearing last year Huon said that he had decided to settle with the former?but continue his crusade against Gawker in a higher court even after a judge dismissed claims of defamation. According to Steve Mandell, an attorney for Above the Law who was present at the hearing, Huon told the judge in open court that he wasn?t worried about his appeal because he was ?getting support from Hulk Hogan?s lawyers in California.?
One oddity in all of this: Harder apparently never knew that it was Thiel financing all of this — just that someone was willing to pay them to basically find any lawsuit to help burden Gawker. I’m not against the idea of third parties funding lawsuits. I see how that can be very helpful in many situations. But you have to recognize that this was not just about funding Hogan’s lawsuit, but about funding a series of cases — many of which appear to be highly questionable and done with highly questionable motives — solely to burden a publication that Thiel disliked. That’s what’s so concerning about this.
And we’ve seen how this can impact others as well. Less than a year ago we wrote about a billionaire that not only filed a bogus defamation lawsuit against Mother Jones, but also had offered to fund others suing the site — even after the defamation claim was thrown out. Merely defending that lawsuit cost Mother Jones and its insurance company over $2 million. Leaving aside the reasonableness or not of the Hogan verdict (we’ll get to that later), the idea that this entire law firm was propped up to support basically any and all legal actions against Gawker — not for purposes of getting justice, but clearly with the sole intent of taking down the company — should raise many concerns.