The Gawker Lawsuit: Where do First Amendment protections stop and legal battles begin?

Gawker’s shutdown can serve as a lesson for media companies to walk a fine line between “newsworthiness” and “sensationalism.”

Gawker.com, “the source for daily Manhattan media news and gossip,” filed a Chapter-11 bankruptcy last month after losing a $140 million lawsuit to former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan. Hogan sued the site for publishing a sex tape that featured him.

Gawker’s demise has the media up in arms following the shocking revelation that Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and don of the “PayPal mafia,” Peter Thiel clandestinely bankrolled Hogan’s legal efforts throughout.

In 2007, Gawkers Valleywag section outed the tech billionaire with this headline “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” thus planting the seed for Thiel’s prolonged mission to drive the snarky gossip site into closure.

After Hogan sued Gawker for leaking the sex tape without his consent or knowledge, Thiel decided to financially back the wrestling icon, leaving Gawker to unknowingly trudge through the legal battles with a much more deeply pocketed adversary.

Thiel’s deep pockets, his practice of funding this lawsuit as an outsider, and pursuing a vendetta against Gawker over the last few years raised grave concerns among a myriad of major media outlets.

Many criticized the self-proclaimed libertarian with the First Amendment argument: How can the very founding principle of this nation not be threatened if the wealthy were able to fund lawsuits and crush media companies whose reporting they find contrary to their liking?

Yet it is hard to sympathize with Gawker and back its violation of specific personal privacy laws because it leaked the sex tape as click-bait. As Forbes’ Alfred Konuwa put it,  “The site earned its fortune through gleefully embarrassing public figures while dancing in the graves of their legacies.”

In the legal world, outsider financing of litigation occurs across various industries, and financiers often aid financially-outgunned plaintiffs. The media has enjoyed a great deal of protection with the First Amendment, but the Supreme Court does not grant complete freedom in publishing content that infringes upon the rights of others. It is common sense, especially in today’s business environment laden with legal disputes.  

As written in the blog of the satire political cartoonist, Scott Adams, Gawker’s shutdown could be seen as “citizens taking a more active role in fixing the world when government isn’t the right tool for the job.”

As seen in the case of Gawker, a publication could be sued for slander, libel, breaching privacy and a myriad of other offenses—and lose.

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