Freedom of the press is critical to our democracy, which is why it’s protected by the First Amendment. However, so is protection against invasion of privacy and defamation.
Usually, celebrities and high-profile individuals are the ones unfairly targeted by the media in cruel ways. In the case of the following story, wrestler Hulk Hogan fought back after his privacy was invaded by Gawker. What was to follow was a lawsuit that proved to be one of the most expensive in history and was apparently 10 years in the making…
What Is Gawker?
In 2003, Gawker, an American blog, using the catchphrase “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news,” got its start. Founded by Nick Denton and Elizabeth Spiers, the New York City-based website focused its attention on celebrities and the media industry.
Since its inception, Gawker has been under scrutiny for posting videos and content that violated copyrights and the privacy of its owners. Their most popular lawsuit was one involving former professional wrestler, Hulk Hogan…
It Began With A Sex Tape
In October 2012, Gawker published a video clip showing Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Gene Bollea, having sex with his friend’s wife, Heather Clem. Gawker editor AJ Daulerio wrote a description with the video: Because the internet has made it easier for all of us to be shameless voyeurs and deviants, we love to watch famous people have sex…We watch this footage because it’s something we’re not supposed to see.”
The post received more than 7 million views and as expected, Hogan was furious. Hulk Hogan’s personal attorney, David Houston immediately demanded Gawker remove the sex tape clips that he says were filmed without Hogan’s knowledge. Gawker refused, which prompted Hogan to hire additional lawyers and prepare a massive lawsuit…
Removal Of The Video
Gawker eventually removed the video and published an update saying, “The video posted here has been removed pending litigation.” But that would not satisfy Hogan. He then hired attorney Charles Harder, who previously represented celebrities like George Clooney. Around the same time, Hogan became connected with Peter Thiel, who had his own vendetta against Gawker.
Enter Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel is PayPal’s co-founder and a venture capitalist and he also happens to be Facebook’s first institutional investor. In December 2007, Gawker published a story with the headline: “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” Basically, Gawker publicly outed Thiel and he responded saying, “Gawker has been a singularly terrible bully.” Then, he compares Valleywag, Gawker’s Silicon Valley-focused website to Al Qaeda in an interview…
Impacting Freedom Of The Press
He said, “I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters. I don’t understand the psychology of people who would kill themselves and blow up buildings, and I don’t understand people who would spend their lives being angry.” Valleywag was known to publish stories about Thiel and other high-profile figures in Silicon Valley.
Whether or not it was known to Hulk Hogan, Thiel effectively began funneling millions into cases against Gawker. Acting as Hogan’s backer, Thiel was hoping to drive Gawker out of business after outing him back in 2007. Denton soon learned about Thiel’s grudge that was years in the making and an “all-out legal war” began…
Power And Its Consequences
Thiel claimed that his decision to back the lawsuit was “less about revenge and more about specific deterrence.” According to a book published by the best-selling author, Ryan Holiday, retribution was on Thiel’s mind as he discussed, “bribery, theft, bugging, [and] email hacking.” Holiday’s book, “Conspiracy,” is basically an in-depth look inside the Hogan lawsuit.
Holiday claims that he decided to write “Conspiracy” after both Thiel and Denton approached him separately, wanting to share with him their views on the case. “I’ve spent the last year and a half piecing together Peter Thiel’s decade-long quest to destroy the media outlet Gawker,” Holiday wrote on Reddit. “When I started researching the 25,000 pages of legal documents and conducting interviews with all the key players, I learned a lot of the most interesting details of this conspiracy were left out of the previous coverage.” What were these details?
Who Is Mr. A?
Holiday claims that the secret weapon of the case was a 26-year-old man known as “Mr. A.” In the book, Holiday describes Mr. A as “not just young, but ambitious, ambitious in a way that makes observers slightly uncomfortable.” He even goes as far as to say that Mr. A told Thiel that Gawker must have made a mistake somewhere in its thousands of articles and Thiel’s team just had to find it.
Making His Move
Apparently, Hulk Hogan’s case was Thiel’s big opportunity. Holiday decided to keep Mr. A’s identity confidential, and he agreed in order to receive this inside information. Here’s what happened next…
Running Out Of Funds
In January 2016, Gawker executives agreed to sell a minority stake in the company to Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg and his company, Columbus Nova Technology Partners. It was the first time the company ever took an outside investment and Gawker said that most of the money was used to defend itself from ongoing litigation.
Bollea vs. Gawker
Then, in March 2016, Hogan’s case against Gawker began. Hogan alleged that Gawker invaded his privacy when it published a video clip of him having sex with his friend’s wife. He testified that Gawker’s airing of the video “turned [his] world upside down.” Hogan sought $100 million in damages. While Thiel was the driving force behind the case, he had no idea if they’d exactly win…
Punitive Damages Totaling $140 Million
On March 18, 2016, a Florida jury awarded Hogan with a $115 million judgment after determining that Gawker invaded his privacy. That amount was later bolstered by an additional $25 million for punitive damages to a total of $140 million. The verdict was a huge win for Hogan, Thiel, and his team.
Fixated On Gawker
In response, Harder published a column in the Hollywood Reporter saying how his client won the case against Gawker. Harder wrote, “Think twice before you invade someone’s privacy or violate their rights.” But more than that, the case proved how much Peter Thiel was fixated on taking down Gawker and the win brought into question the legality of Thiel’s funding of the case…
Third Party Litigation Funding
“It’s not illegal for an outside entity to help fund another party’s lawsuit, and the practice, known as ‘third-party litigation funding’ has become increasingly common in the U.S.,” according to Forbes. Naturally, the outside party usually negotiates for a defined share of the proceeds.
Explaining His Reasoning
In May 2016, Thiel refers to his funding of the litigation as “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.” He says he spent around $10 million in lawsuits against Gawker and claims he did not do it to make a return on investment, saying, it’s “not a business venture.”
Filing For Bankruptcy
On June 10, 2016, Gawker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after a judge denied a request for them to avoid immediately paying Hogan’s judgment. Then, on August 18, 2016, a Florida jury awarded Hulk Hogan more than $140 million in his invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker.
The End Of An Era
Founder Nick Denton, wrote on Gawker, “Gawker.com is shutting down today, Monday 22nd August 2016, some 13 years after it began and two days before the end of my forties. It is the end of an era.” Thiel and Hogan celebrated the win over a bottle of champagne.