Friday, August 19, 2016
Thiel destroys Gawker: Two views
If you haven't heard, Gawker.com is shutting down in a few days. Apparently the other Gawker Media sites will continue. The shutdown is the result of the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, which Peter Thiel financed. (I feel justified in putting up a blog post about all of this here because of Robert Anton Wilson's interest in freedom of speech, although I don't pretend to know what he would have thought about this controversy).
My reaction to this has been dominated by a feeling of pleasure that Gawker finally bullied the wrong targets, but I acknowledge that Thiel's lawsuit raises freedom of speech issues. I've noticed two good blog posts about the case.
Jacob Sullum, a reliably excellent columinist and Reason Magazine writer, pens a piece arguing that "Peter Thiel's Free-Floating Right to Privacy Is Inconsistent With Freedom of Speech."
Kudos to Sullum for letting Thiel make his argument before attacking it.
"A story that violates privacy and serves no public interest should never be published," Thiel writes. "It is ridiculous to claim that journalism requires indiscriminate access to private people's sex lives....It is wrong to expose people's most intimate moments for no good reason."
One can agree with all of these propositions without agreeing that they should be legally enforceable.
You should read all of Sullum's piece, but here is the heart of his argument:
Thiel's free-floating right to privacy is completely unmoored from property rights, contract rights, or constitutional law. It can be invoked whenever someone objects to a story that reflects negatively on him or complicates his personal life, even when the story is completely accurate, provided that person has the resources to pay for a lawsuit. And as with defamation suits, he need not win to punish his adversary.
Ken White at Popehat, very good at freedom of speech issues, writes:
Gawker's utter destruction produces a feeling of glee in my guts but disquiet in my heart. As I've written before, I'm not sure that the ruinous verdict against Gawker was just, I don't think that the amount of damages awarded was defensible, and I'm concerned that the result was a product of the brokenness of our legal system.
For White, the brokenness of the legal system is the main point.
But observers seem eager to push the wrong message about that brokenness. The scary part of the story isn't that the occasional vengeful billionaire might break the system and overwhelm even a well-funded target with money. Such people exist, but getting sued by them is like getting hit by lightning. No, for most of us the scary part of the story is that our legal system is generally receptive to people abusing it to suppress speech.
His piece is also a read-the-whole thing, and let me add that neither piece is terrible long — you can read them both without interrupting your day very long.
UPDATE: The Peter Thiel op-ed is here.