Kevin Dowd May 27, 2016
Note: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of PitchBook or the editorial staff.
Venture capital mogul Peter Thiel (right) is the billionaire genius who founded PayPal and Palantir Technologies, the secretive Big Data company funded in part by the CIA. He is a board member at Facebook, one of the three most powerful companies in the world, an entity trying to collect the personal information of every human on earth. And this week, he revealed himself as the bankroll behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media—and, in turn, as an enemy of free speech.
By funding the Hogan lawsuit and at least one other like it—and by pursuing courses of legal action designed particularly to hit Gawker in the pocketbook—Thiel is trying to cease the gossip-turned-politics media network from existing. (A report from The New York Times that the company is exploring a sale indicates he may be on the right track.) That is perfectly legal, and it should be. Thiel is allowed to do what he wants with his money. But what he wants is not in the public good. No matter what you think of Gawker and some of the site’s more noxious offerings, a very rich person using that wealth to eliminate voices from the public discourse is a bad thing for our republic.
Look, Gawker is not a particularly appealing hill for free-speech absolutists to die on. In publicly outing Thiel as gay, in publishing a portion of Hogan’s private sex tape and in countless other instances, the company’s editorial choices are at best regrettable, at worst destructive and harmful.
But they are also just that: Editorial choices, made by members of a free press with the right to decide what is and is not “newsworthy,” with the right to disseminate incendiary words that may offend or upset very powerful people. There is a chilling effect if publishers fear financial retribution from oligarchs.
Thiel still paints himself as a free-speech defender, making the case Gawker is an outlier. As he told the NYT, “If I didn’t think Gawker was unique, I wouldn’t have done any of this. If the entire media was more or less like this, this would be like trying to boil the ocean.” But a case-by-case approach to free speech, weeding out only the examples you find personally problematic, is a dangerous thing. Who will be making those decisions when the forms of speech you hold dear are threatened? Who gets to decide what sorts of speech are OK, and what sorts are not?
There is a reason the authors of the Bill of Rights put the free-speech clause first; American independence probably never happens in the first place without “Common Sense,” a pamphlet written with the express intent of fomenting political revolution. Nick Denton is not Thomas Paine, and the marketplace of ideas will probably survive just fine without Valleywag. But actions set precedents, and not all attacks on the press are created equal.
In 2012, a billionaire named Frank VanderSloot attempted to sue the website Mother Jones into oblivion after it published a story about his financial contributions to the Mitt Romney campaign. GOP kingmaker/Sin City hotel baron Sheldon Adelson recently purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal—at first attempting to hide his identity as the buyer—and has already taken steps to neuter the paper’s political coverage. Donald Trump once sued the author Tim O’Brien for libel after O’Brien asserted that Trump is not a billionaire; said Trump later, “I spent a couple bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”
It’s probably worth noting here that Peter Thiel is a delegate for Donald Trump in the state of California.
Again: Those litigative activities are and should remain perfectly legal, because free speech cuts both ways, and the ability to file suit undoubtedly falls under the First Amendment umbrella. There’s not necessarily an easy answer to this problem. But if Thiel succeeds in shuttering Gawker, it’s easy to envision other oversensitive billionaires following his lead, leading to an even greater chilling effect, leading to a reality in which the uber-rich are able to effectively eliminate all public criticism of their activities for a few million in legal fees.
Some corners of Gawker can be a cesspool, but few media companies in the U.S. are less afraid to criticize the powerful. If Thiel succeeds in driving the company out of business, and if more members of his tax bracket start using their wealth to silence critical speech, we’ll wish there were more Gawkers out there, not fewer.