Remember how the billionaire funder of Facebook and Palantir, Peter Thiel, insisted that he was bankrupting Gawker to protect your privacy
? Well, the lawyer, Charles Harder, that Thiel set up with a monthly retainer, specifically to focus on
lawsuits that could kill Gawker dead, has become something of a "celebrity" in the "let's stomp out free speech" circle of celebrities. Last month, the Hollywood Reporter did a big profile on Harder
and his newfound fame (and rapidly growing client list of famous people upset about press coverage). In some "bonus cuts," reporter Eriq Gardner noted on Twitter that Harder told him he no longer "monitors" what's left of Gawker (now called Gizmodo Media, and owned by Univision).
Except... Gizmodo is now pointing out that since Univision took over, Harder has sent them five separate demands to take down information
because some of Harder's clients were upset about what Gizmodo Media properties had written about them.
In late August, Harder issued several new legal threats against Gizmodo Media Group over stories that were, in some cases, published years ago. One targeted a 2014 Deadspin story about a former ESPN employee named Heather Paskewich, who claimed in a federal lawsuit that her supervisor, Heli Soto, digitally manipulated photos of her to be more “sexually provocative” and posted them online. Harder, who is now representing Soto, listed nine allegedly “false and defamatory” passages from Deadspin’s coverage of the lawsuit.
Each of the passages that Harder describes as defamatory were sourced from Paskewich’s complaint. American courts have widely recognized the right of media outlets to publish and quote from official court records. (According to the case’s April 30, 2015 docket entry, Paskewich and ESPN reached an out-of-court settlement; the terms were not disclosed.)
Harder has also added I’m Shmacked’s Arya Toufanian to his client roster. (I’m Shmacked hosts and films college parties, which New York Magazine has called “an obvious descendent of Girls Gone Wild.”) In his August 22 letter to Gizmodo Media Group, Harder demanded the removal of a pair of Jezebel stories from 2014 about a tweet from the I’m Shmacked Twitter account. It was directed at Business Insider reporter Caroline Moss after she noticed that the account had copy-and-pasted a joke that had gone viral on Twitter. That tweet, which has since been deleted, read:
“They said make fun of I’m Shmacked.”
“What’s the worst that can happen, they said.”
July 23rd. 9:22AM.
Caroline is prepping her anus.
Harder’s letter acknowledges that the original Jezebel post was “based on Mr. Toufanian’s tweets,” but he nonetheless claims that the stories are “false and defamatory” and amount to “libel, false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
The article has a few more examples of Harder threat letters to Univision/Gizmodo, but the most ridiculous of all is the most recent letter
, sent last month. It's not even about a Gizmodo/Gawker article at all. Rather it's about an article in Forbes
(which is not owned by Univision) about Univision's dumb decision to pull a bunch
of old Gawker stories over misplaced (and legally clueless) liability worries. In that article, Forbes reporter Ryan Mac got a few comments from John Cook, Gawker/Gizmodo Media's executive editor, who protested the Univision decision vehemently. In the article, Mac quotes Cook saying some things about Harder himself:
“The end goal for Charles Harder is to harm people,” he said. “Whether that’s A.J. Daulerio or Sam Biddle or Nick Denton or me. I do not believe he has his client’s interests at heart.”
That apparently caused Harder's firm (in the form of lawyer Ryan Stonerock, who works for Harder) to send a letter on behalf of Harder himself
, arguing that the statement above is defamatory. It's not. But here's what the letter had to say:
The bolded sentence in the Defamatory Statement is false, malicious and highly
defamatory. Moreover, both the first and last sentences in the Defamatory Statement constitute
tortious interference with contractual relations, namely Mr. Harder’s existing client relationships.
The Defamatory Statement also constitutes tortious interference with prospective economic
advantage in regard to Mr. Harder’s future clients, among other claims.
Mr. Harder hereby demands an immediate public retraction of the Defamatory Statement
and an apology, as well as the payment of damages or an alternative agreeable resolution. If
Univision and Mr. Cook fail to comply and respond to these demands immediately, Mr. Harder
will not hesitate to exercise his rights in pursuing legal action against Univision, the executives at
Univision who are responsible for the hiring of Mr. Cook based upon negligent hiring practices
(Mr. Cook has a long line of defamatory activity, and has been sued for it in multiple public
lawsuits of which Univision executives have been well aware for months), and against Mr. Cook
This is, to put it mildly, a load of complete bullshit. Harder, who in that profile claims "I believe very strongly in a free press" doesn't seem to understand how the First Amendment works. Cook's statement is clearly one of opinion, and it's clearly protected speech. And despite Harder also saying in that profile that he'd like to change the standard for defamation of public figures, the law as it stands requires not just that the statements be false statements of fact, but also that they be said maliciously. And, yes, Harder is a public figure (remember, there was just a whole Hollywood Reporter feature about him).
What Harder appears to be doing here is little more than threatening a SLAPP suit to try to shut up the press from saying negative things about him. Even the references to Cook being sued in the past are ridiculous, since most of those lawsuits are from Harder himself, and most of them are completely bogus.
So far, it does not appear that Univision is complying with any of these demands (which is good to see). So, let's see what Harder does next. Is he now going to go after Univision too? Will Thiel continue to fund that as well? Because most of the threats seem entirely bogus, and would be laughed out of court.
And, of course, this is yet another reminder of why we really need a federal anti-SLAPP law to stop such bogus threats in their tracks.