Tech investor, billionaire and Donald Trump-backer Peter Thiel has been locked in a legal battle by proxy with Gawker Media that amounts to a First Amendment test which could potentially put Gawker out of business.
The media company that consistently challenges and pokes at the powers that be in technology and venture capital has, according to The Wall Street Journal, “hired an investment banker to explore strategic options including a potential sale,” in the midst of this costly conflict.
Now, Gawker founder Nick Denton has published an open letter challenging the investor in Facebook, Palantir and SpaceX to engage in a public debate outside of the courtroom, and without the affiliated legal fees, in the name of public discourse.
For those just becoming aware of the situation, here’s a timeline:
- In 2007, Gawker Media-owned Valleywag published a story called “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”
- In 2009, Thiel told TechCrunch editor Connie Loizos, then a writer with PE Hub, that “Valleywag is the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda… they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters.”
In seemingly unrelated incidents:
- In 2012, Gawker published a story and video revealing that Terry Bollea, best known as Hulk Hogan, had sex with a woman named Heather Clem, the wife (now ex-wife) of Bollea’s friend, Bubba the Love Sponge. The wrestling star sued Gawker.
- In 2013, a Pinellas County, Florida judge ordered Gawker to take the post down from its site. Gawker did not comply entirely; it took down the video excerpt from the sex tape but not the written post, and appealed the injunction.
- In 2014, an appeals court in Florida said the earlier order was a violation of the media company’s First Amendment rights. The decision allowed Gawker to keep the verbal and video content of its post up, as Eriq Gardner and The Hollywood Reporter then reported. The case would eventually go to a jury trial.
- On July 2, 2015, a jury trial for the Gawker Media LLC, Nick Denton and writer A.J. Daulerio vs. Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hulk Hogan was suddenly delayed in Florida.
- By July 24, 2015, transcripts from the same sex tape that Gawker had earlier excerpted surfaced in other outlets. In those transcripts, Bolleas used blatantly racist language and talked disparagingly about his daughter’s African American boyfriend. Unbowed by the ongoing lawsuit, Gawker reported on the WWE star’s now apparent racism.
- On July 24, 2015, the WWE terminated its contract with Hulk Hogan, as US Magazine then reported. And Hulk Hogan issued a public apology, sending it exclusively to People magazine, for using the racist slurs.
- By March 2016, a Florida jury ruled to grant $140 million in damages to the disgraced wrestler Terry Bollea. Gawker’s Nick Denton wrote extensively on Gawker.com about complications his team faced throughout the trial, alleging essential testimony and evidence was wrongfully excluded, among other things.
If you’ve read this far and are wondering where Thiel comes into play again, and how he could possibly be connected to a character like Terry Bollea, let’s skip a few months ahead to May 2016:
- May 2016, Forbes and The New York Times reported that Peter Thiel had been anonymously financing Bollea’s case against Gawker Media.
- May 25, 2016. The investor confirmed the rumors in a second story with The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Peter Thiel, Tech Billionaire, Reveals Secret War With Gawker.” And he gave a statement to CNN saying, “I am proud to have supported Terry Bollea [a.k.a. Hulk Hogan] in his successful fight against a bully’s gross violation of privacy.”
Which brings us back to Denton’s challenge to Thiel. In an open letter he published late today on Gawker.com, he writes:
The best regulation for speech, in a free society, is more speech. We each claim to respect independent journalism, and liberty. We each have criticisms of the other’s methods and objectives. Now you have revealed yourself, let us have an open and public debate.
The court cases will proceed as long as you fund them. And I am sure the war of headlines will continue. But, even if we put down weapons just for a brief truce, let us have a more constructive exchange.
We can hold the discussion in person with a moderator of your choosing, in front of an audience, under the auspices of the Committee to Protect Journalists, or in a written discussion on some neutral platform such as Medium. Just tell me where and when.
At the very least, it will improve public understanding of the interplay of media and power. Considering the amount spent on lawyers, $20 million between us at this point, there should be some public benefit.
We will continue reporting on the fate of Gawker Media and the impact of Thiel’s legal and political activities on his businesses.
A source who previously worked for an institution that poured significant amounts of capital into Peter Thiel’s funds said he did not think endowments, wealthy individuals or family funds who are limited partners working with Thiel’s funds would react in any way. They only want to see good returns on their investments.
The source said, “Limited partners in his funds know he is an original thinker, and libertarian and they probably won’t be concerned with his political involvement or legal involvement vis a vis Gawker Media.”