Why We Have to Reject Peter Thiel and Defend Nick Denton

Thiel’s campaign may be legal, but over time it will have an insidious effect on free speech, vigorous journalism and even satire

Last Updated: May 31, 2016 @ 1:48 PM

Maybe, you might think, it’s not so bad if a Silicon Valley billionaire uses his money to stealthily bankrupt a gossip site.

Maybe, you might think, those snotty media elites need to be brought down a peg.

And that Nick Denton — you could easily be thinking that the guy needs to feel the stinging pain that he has inflicted on undeserving media victims for years. (I have been one, back when I was a New York Times reporter.)

But we need to stop that thinking.

Billionaire Peter Thiel’s secret funding of a campaign to kill Gawker via the Hulk Hogan lawsuit is worrisome and dangerous for many reasons, not all of them immediately obvious. It may be legal, but it will have an insidious effect on free speech, vigorous journalism and even satire over time.

Am I exaggerating? Not at all. Some will certainly pull their punches before they make that joke or write that muckraking expose if they face the possibility of being pursued in the shadows by a foe with functionally infinite assets.

Worse, the prospect further reinforces the imbalances in a 1 percent democracy. It validates an “Eyes Wide Shut,” cabal-like approach to silencing adversaries, when what we should want is an above-board system that is the same for all.

I’m reading dozens of indignant tweets from Silicon Valley potentates about the Fourth Amendment –the right to privacy — as if it justifies Thiel’s actions.

But there are remedies to invasions of privacy, and they’re called lawsuits. And in the judgement of those suits, it turns out that the right to privacy often takes a back seat to the right to free expression.

That’s because our First Amendment is the foundation upon which a free society rests. Without it, dissenters speak at their peril. Critics of the powerful have no foundation on which to rely. And the majority fall into silence before those who need only threaten retaliation, not even deliver it.

Nick Denton / Credit: HuffPost Live

Nick Denton / Credit: HuffPost Live

Do we have to suffer mean, obnoxious and tasteless speech — porn and mean tweets and Donald Trump — as a result? We do.

Many in Silicon Valley seem to think that what Thiel has done is heroic. He himself obviously thinks so, as he has now publicly boasted of his crusade, and said there are other lawsuits he is funding beyond Hulk Hogan‘s.

But in practice what he’s done is like the government overreaching into our private lives. How’s that fly with libertarian Thiel? In this case, he was secretly using a government arm, the judiciary, to squash a perceived enemy.

Rich people already have a huge advantage in the legal system. They can afford better lawyers. They can afford to pursue a case past any notion of reason.

As the founder of an independent media company, I already have to deal with the agendas and egos of the rich (no, not you, Ryan Kavanaugh). TheWrap was sued for defamation a few years ago by one Elisabeth Thieriot, a producer-heiress with a highly developed sense of indignation and a barely-there understanding of the First Amendment.

That’s shorthand for: She really didn’t like something we wrote. Never asked for a correction. Never chose to comment. She just sued.

We won the case after a couple of years when she apparently ran through lawyers, then out of steam and finally failed to show up to court. (TheWrap was not covered by California’s strong anti-SLAPP statue because digital organizations were not included. As a result the state changed the law, though too late to help us.)

But it cost over $1 million in legal fees. Had we not been covered by insurance, I shudder to think what might have happened to our small but mighty newsroom.

That’s what’s wrong with what Thiel has done.

As Slate wrote this past week, “His vast fortune means that he is free to ignore any evidence that his ideas are stupid and that he does not have to tolerate those who disagree with him. That’s one of the great things about being superrich: Your wealth serves as a shield–and, if you want, a bludgeon.”

Here’s for my vote against superrich bludgeons of the essential value of free expression in our democracy.

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