If Peter Thiel’s example is followed, free speech won’t be cheap
For a person so commonly described as a utopian, Peter Thiel’s decision to back lawsuits against Gawker Media seems more likely to bring about a dystopian society where only the wealthiest have real freedom of speech.
Let’s start out by agreeing that Thiel has long-standing reasons to dislike Gawker. He was a target of their continually baffling campaign to out public—as well as not-so public—figures and then dismiss the resulting outrage as homophobia, as if there aren’t still valid reasons for people to keep their sexualities private. And there isn’t any current reason to doubt that Thiel is targeting any organizations other than Gawker, nor that he’s being anything other than honest when he says he’s supportive of journalism generally, but believes Gawker’s actions put it beyond the pale.
It is easy enough to read his confirmation of the fact that he’s funding Hulk Hogan/Terry Bollea’s lawsuit against Gawker as something more ominous, however. It could be seen as a warning to other media outlets that he’s willing to use the legal system to punish those that he sees as failing to conform to his ideal model of journalism. It can also be seen as the opening move in a larger, if uncoordinated effort, by the very rich to use the courts to silence those who write things they don’t like.
Vinod Khosla, for example, has professed his dislike of Gawker, especially because the now-defunct Valleywag covered his yearslong effort to prevent public access to a beach that joins his property, despite California law requiring such access. He recently tweeted that “clickbait journalists need to be taught lessons.” The cry of venture capitalists in the Gawker case seems eerily similar to the one that was bandied about during Gamergate: “It’s about ethics in [game/general] journalism.”
We need to talk about the ways Gawker has and continues to violate the generally held ethics of journalism of the mid to late 20th century. But that 1) doesn’t mean that such ethics are the only valid set, nor that 2) single individuals are the proper arbiter of journalistic ethics, especially when they have a personal stake in the situation at issue. Gawker’s actions often make me quite angry, but, at least in the case of Hogan/Bollea, they are not indefensible. Even if many journalists would have acted differently, that doesn’t mean there was no public interest in publishing part of a tape that the plaintiff himself had spoken about on several occasions.
Even if you disagree on that point—and I’m sure many will—that doesn’t mean that Thiel’s actions aren’t troubling. Several Financial Times commentators wrote about the possible precedents, and they offered plenty of nuance.
For example, it’s hard to argue that giving more people access to the judicial system is a bad thing, not that only the independently wealthy deserve to be able to seek justice from the courts. Two commentators bring up the idea that some kind of safeguards need to be in place to ensure that the very wealthy aren’t able to use their wealth to back suits merely to silence others or exact revenge. But given that courts have held that spending money is equivalent to speech and is therefore protected by the First Amendment, it’s not clear what those safeguards could be.
One thing that is clear is that in a society where the wealthy are able to use the courts to target those they are unhappy with—no matter how valid their reasons might be—is one in which free speech will become quite expensive.