Peter Thiel’s War on Free Speech: A Rumpus Roundup

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Last week, tech billionaire Peter Thiel admitted to funding lawsuits against Gawker Media, including the lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan. Hogan won a $140 million judgment against Gawker after the site published a small portion of a recording of Hogan having sex with a friend’s wife and talking about eating too much sushi.

Suspicions of a third party funding the Hogan lawsuit had swirled for months, particularly after part of the complaint was dropped—the one claim that required Gawker’s insurers pay for its defense and potential payouts.

Speaking to the New York Times, Thiel admitted he was funding the lawsuits:

Mr. Thiel added: “I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category. They usually attack less prominent, far less wealthy people that simply can’t defend themselves.”

Thiel might be referring to people like Sean Parker, who Gawker “attacked” for defacing a national park in order to host his $10 million wedding.

Gawker owner Nick Denton published an open letter to Thiel, listing some of Thiel’s associates that Gawker has written about over the years.

Thiel has been out to get Gawker since the website outed him. The story wasn’t Gawker’s last public outing. Denton is openly gay. Thiel plotted for years and has so far spent $10 million on legal fees.

Thiel has said he deserves privacy, telling the New York Times:

“I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations,” he said. “I think much more highly of journalists than that. It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker.”

Much of Thiel’s fortune comes from investments in Facebook, a company known for privacy violations, like a lawsuit over automatic photo tagging, violations of local privacy laws in Illinois, Ireland, France, Germany, Iran, and elsewhere, accusations of reading private messages, and many, many more. Even non-Facebook users are now being tracked by the company. So to be clear: Thiel believes in his right to privacy, but sees no issue in profiting from violating yours.

With a fortune of more than $2.7 billion, Thiel is in the 1% of the 1%, and his decision to fund lawsuits against an independent publisher undermine the freedom of the press.

As Ezra Klein writes at Vox, Thiel isn’t relying on the law but instead his money to dictate terms.

At Slate, Justin Peters writes:

If Thiel was spending $10 million in secret to get rid of a problem, what other problems are he and other tech plutocrats spending money on to eliminate? The under-regulation of the tech industry—the way that many “disruptive innovators” operate free from constraints that hamper their more established competitors—isn’t just a function of legislative inertia. Big tech companies have well-funded lobbying offices in Washington and elsewhere, and like all rich entities, everywhere, always, they are accustomed to throwing money at their problems.

Disliking Gawker isn’t uncommon, but approving of Thiel leveraging his wealth to bring down the company through lawsuits sets a dangerous precedent:

If Thiel’s strategy works against Gawker, it could be used by any billionaire against any media organization. Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, the list goes on and on. Up until now, they’ve mostly been content suing news organizations as plaintiffs, over stories which name them. But Thiel has shown them how to go thermonuclear: bankroll other lawsuits, as many as it takes, and bankrupt the news organization that way. Very few companies have the legal wherewithal to withstand such a barrage.

Peter Thiel is hijacking democracy. He’s using his wealth to circumvent the freedom of press because he didn’t like what someone wrote. Gawker might not have been right in outing him, but there is a legal framework to offer redress if the website was libelous or violated his privacy rights. Thiel was unhappy with the law, so he turned to his wealth to bend it more to his liking.


Ian MacAllen is the Rumpus Deputy Editor and founder of English Kills Review an online literary magazine focused on books, authors, and New York City. His writing has appeared in Little Fiction, Vol 1 Brooklyn, Joyland Magazine, Chicago Review of Books, Fiction Advocate, and elsewhere. He holds a Master’s Degree in English from Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com. More from this author →