So Gawker and its owner Nick Denton filed Chapter 11 today to avoid paying Hulk Hogan the $140 million they owe him after losing an invasion of privacy trial. The suit was funded by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, which, according to many liberals, makes this the most vital First Amendment case of our lifetime.
In a spasm of hypocrisy, many of the same people who don’t believe corporations deserve constitutional rights; who think allowing the state to ban political movies and books is a fine idea; who are constantly telling us how important the courts are in realizing a just society; who are in the pocket of the trial lawyer lobby; and who have achieved almost every major political victory through third-party-funded court battles (sometimes taxpayer-funded) now worry about slippery slopes because a libertarian has funded a successful lawsuit.
Take the illiberal New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, a proponent of censorship who is considering using racketeering charges against global warming skeptics. A government official who wants to punish people for thought crimes now has the temerity to talk about freedom of the press. Gawker, by the way, once favorably wrote about arresting climate change deniers. Unlike Michael Mann and Bill Nye and a bunch of AGs, there are those who believe political speech should be protected, and yet also that media organizations should not be immune from the law.
It’s worth once again pointing out that the trial was okayed by judge, the verdict was rendered by a jury, and the decision was upheld by a circuit judge. In no sense does this suit fall under the concept of “frivolous.” Yet liberal writers do not like the outcome mostly because Thiel is politically unacceptable to them and because they don’t like that he was driven by revenge.
Moreover, if Thiel’s motivation were a cause liberal pundits felt some moral or ideological affinity towards, they would be cheering him on. Vox asserts that Thiel ‘sees his lawsuit as a public-spirited attempt to enforce norms of decency and respect for personal privacy.’ Or, in other words, he uses the judicial system the same way liberals have for decades when trying to enforce their own norms—including ones on abortion rights, gay marriage, and basically everything else they value.
Actually, every contemporary major lawsuit of any political consequence has probably been funded in some way by a third party. If Thiel is a problem, so is the pro bono legal work of wealthy lawyers who donate their time and resources to causes that move them. So is contingent litigation. So are class-action lawsuits. So is every advocacy legal group. Start with the ACLU, which is backed by hundreds of One Percenters and works to enforce its own norms of ‘decency and respect’ when it comes boys’ and girls’ bathrooms and leads crusades to do away with the Free Exercise Clause.
You think these awards are out of control? Let’s talk about tort reform. If you have a problem with the merits of the case, we can debate it. Let’s remember, a Gawker editor claimed that he was okay with publishing sex tapes for anyone older than four. Is that covered under the First Amendment? Let’s discuss.
Gawker might be undeserving, but eventually the billionaires will come for “deserving” publications too.— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) June 10, 2016
But if you’re okay with empowering government to ban a political documentary during an election season by overturning Citizens United, but lament that Hulk Hogan won a suit against a tabloid site that ran a sex tape of him without his permission, you’re not serious about freedom of expression. If you’re anxious about Thiel’s solid suit but not about multimillionaires like Nick Denton regularly destroy people’s lives — people who often don’t have the resources to fight back — you don’t really care about the little guy. Is Gawker beyond the reach of the law? Or should it just be beyond the reach of third-party funders that liberal pundits don’t like? Because it sure sounds like the latter.