Peter Thiel got the ultimate revenge against a news outlet that crossed him, bankrupting Gawker through a massive lawsuit earlier this year. But even Thiel, a Donald Trump supporter, can’t abide the Republican presidential nominee’s plan to “open up our libel laws.”
“I don’t think the libel laws need to be changed,” Thiel said Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.
The PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member, described by the New York Times as “a pariah in much of the tech community” because of his decision to back Trump, addressed his endorsement in prepared remarks and a question-and-answer session with National Press Club President Thomas Burr. Thiel told the Times last week that he hoped the event would “advance the discussion” by “engaging with the tough questions.”
Thiel was initially quiet about his support for Trump; he did not speak publicly about the endorsement until his name showed up on a list of California delegates the Trump campaign filed in May, ahead of the Republican primary in that state.
“Fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline,” Thiel said at the party convention in Cleveland, “and nobody in this race is being honest about it, except Donald Trump.”
Thiel also said during his convention speech that he is “proud to be gay,” but he was in the closet in 2007 when Gawker outed him in article entitled “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.” Still smarting from the article years later, Thiel secretly funded an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit brought against Gawker by former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, who sought damages after Gawker published part of a sex tape featuring him and the wife of a close friend.
Thiel’s underwriting of the Hogan suit sparked concerns among journalists that he and other vengeful billionaires — Trump, perhaps — could pose a threat to the free press. Gawker founder Nick Denton was forced to shut down the website and sell the company (including sister sites such as Deadspin and Gizmodo) to Univision for $135 million in August.
Charles Harder, the attorney who won the Hogan case, has since been hired to represent Melania Trump and former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes in their own media disputes.
At the Press Club, Thiel called Gawker a “singularly sociopathic bully” and said he does not want to encourage other billionaires to sue news outlets over legitimate, critical coverage.
“Wealthy people shouldn’t do that,” he said. “I think if they try, they won’t succeed.”
Thiel defended his decision to finance someone else's lawsuit by arguing that if you are a regular person, or even “a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system.”
“I was very careful in the Hulk Hogan litigation in picking a lawsuit where the fight was over privacy,” Thiel said. “We didn’t even bring a libel action because that was sort of the way I wanted to make clear, in the Hogan case, it was not about the media more generally.”
Thiel’s candidate, though, does want to make significant changes to First Amendment protections. Trump recently told a Miami TV station that he favors the media laws of England, where “they have a system where you can actually sue if someone says something wrong.”
To win a libel case in the United States, a public figure such as Trump must prove that a news outlet not only published false and damaging information but that it did so with “actual malice,” meaning “that a statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether or not it was false,” according to the Legal Information Institute at the Cornell University Law School.
In England, though, the legal burden falls on the media company to “prove that the words complained of were true or substantially true.”
Thiel did not criticize Trump directly, but he said he supports the “actual malice” standard established by a Supreme Court case more than 50 years ago.