Judge dismisses ‘inventor of email’ lawsuit against Techdirt

A Massachusetts judge has sided with Techdirt, dismissing Shiva Ayyadurai’s $15 million lawsuit against the media company, its founder Mike Masnick and writer Leigh Beadon.

The suit centered on Techdirt’s coverage of Ayyadurai’s claim that he is the inventor of email — Masnick’s position on the matter is spelled out pretty clearly in an article titled, “Here’s The Truth: Shiva Ayyadurai Didn’t Invent Email.”

Ayyadurai sued Techdirt for defamation, while Masnick argued that the articles were both backed up by research and protected under the First Amendment. (He also said that regardless of the outcome, the case has had “very real chilling effects” on Techdirt.)

In his post announcing the legal victory, Masnick writes, “This is, clearly, a big win for the First Amendment and free speech — especially the right to call out and criticize a public figure such as Shiva Ayyadurai, who is now running for the US Senate in Massachusetts.”

In his ruling, Judge F. Dennis Saylor agrees that the articles were protected under the First Amendment, partly because they “are not provably false, are subjective statements that do not imply knowledge of objective facts, or are statements involving figurative language or hyperbole.”

Some of this touches on the question of whether Ayyadurai is, in fact, the inventor of email, but Saylor writes, “The articles at issue do not dispute that plaintiff created an e-mail system. Rather, they dispute whether plaintiff should properly be characterized as the inventor of e-mail based on that creation.”

Saylor goes on to note that exactly what distinguishes the first email system from other forms of electronic communication isn’t something that’s universally agreed upon — for example, he says that while Ayyadurai’s suit defines email as including features like an inbox, outbox and folders, the Merriam-Webster definition is much more general.

“Accordingly, whether plaintiff’s claim to have invented e-mail is ‘fake’ depends upon the operative definition of ‘e-mail,’ ” Saylor writes. “Because that definition does not have a single, objectively correct answer, the claim is incapable of being proved true or false.”

While Saylor sides with Techdirt in dismissing Ayyadurai’s suit, he doesn’t agree with its argument that California’s anti-SLAPP law applies, which means the company will be responsible for its own legal fees.

We’ve reached out to Ayyadurai for comment (though not via email, since I don’t have his address) and will update if we hear back.

Update: Ayyadurai’s attorney Charles Harder sent us the following statement:

Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai will be appealing today’s ruling. Dr. Ayyadurai has a long history of standing up for free speech. As a strong proponent of free speech, he also believes in truthful speech. False speech is not protected by the Constitution, and TechDirt’s false and malicious speech about Dr. Ayyadurai should receive no legal protection. False speech does harm to readers, who are misled by it; it does harm to journalism, which is weakened by it; and it does harm to the subjects of the speech, whose reputations and careers are damaged by it. The public, and the courts, should not tolerate false speech, particularly when it causes people harm, and irresponsible media companies should stop using the Constitution as an excuse for their reckless dissemination of false information.