On December 19, 2007, Gawker’s Owen Thomas wrote an article outing Peter Thiel as gay. The point of the article was to cast light on gays in a positive tone, by showing one of the best venture capitalists alive to be gay. Mr. Thiel, according to Max Levchin, one of his fellow founders of PayPal, was concerned not by the backlash to be received in Silicon Valley, but instead from investors from intolerant countries—Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Thiel, a self-described Libertarian, then decided to take the calm and collect approach in his damage control by funding lawsuits against Gawker nearly a decade later. His actions have only kept the topic of his sexuality in the news longer, expanding the audience of the original outing.
There is nothing illegal about funding lawsuits to fuel personal vendettas. The argument can be easily made that our legal process, by simplifying the process to file a lawsuit enough, actually promotes these types of lawsuits. The problem arises, however, when looking at the outcome of these types of lawsuits. Very often cases involving personal vendettas have the decisions of jury members swayed by appealing to the emotion of the case at hand, and not by the legal standard. Cases decided on emotion often have reckless outcomes, and the case of Bollea v. Gawker (Hogan v. Gawker) is no different.
The jury ultimately decided that the damages Gawker would have to pay $140 million in damages to Mr. Hogan. For them to reach this number, there were several conclusions they had to come to:
• The posting of the Hogan sex tape increased the value of Gawker by somewhere between $5 million and $15 million.
• This point was made by Jeff Anderson of Consor, which provides “intellectual property valuation.”
• The emotional distress Hogan endured had a value of $60 million.
• For the record, Joseph Guzman, who was shot 16 times by the NYPD in 2006, and had 7 bullets removed from his body at the hospital, received $3 million.
• The median award for wrongful death in 2001 was $961,000 ($1.3 million when adjusted for inflation using the BLS calculator).
But we do not have to only look to Bollea v. Gawker to see the recklessness of Mr. Thiel, and the toll that his recklessness takes. Shiva Ayyadurai, an entrepreneur, said that he invented the email. Gizmodo, owned by Gawker, proved that claim to be false, and they are now facing a $35 million lawsuit. Ayyadurai is being represented by Mr. Thiel’s attorney and is suing on the grounds of defamation. The problem is, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post ran very similar stories about how Ayyadurai lied, neither of them have been served, and we all know neither of them ever will be. Mr. Thiel is funding cases that, if successful, would absolutely pervert the rights of the media provided in the First Amendment.
Gawker has now been forced into bankruptcy over a case that will accomplish nothing but set First Amendment rights back and add another stepping stone to Mr. Thiel’s vendetta. We fear a day in which those with money—following in Mr. Thiel’s footsteps—systematically destroy the vital and all-important role of media in protecting our rights. The Student Free Speech Association deplores this behavior entirely: we cannot let our equal rights become unequal.