Gawker privacy lawsuit evolves into battle of tech billionaires

  • Reuters, San Francisco
  • Updated: May 28, 2016 11:04 IST
In 2012, Gawker had published a sex tape of Hulk Hogan

Billionaire media owner Pierre Omidyar is backing news and entertainment web site Gawker Media in its lawsuit against wrestler Hulk Hogan, adding a new twist to a case pitting technology money against press freedom.

Omidyar, owner of The Intercept publisher First Look Media, is asking other media outlets to file legal briefs in support of Gawker, First Look said in a statement on Friday. First Look said its goal was to protect constitutional rights.

“The possibility that Gawker may have to post a bond for $50 million or more just to be able to pursue its right to appeal the jury’s verdict raises serious concerns about press freedom,” said Lynn Oberlander, general counsel at First Look, in a statement.

Gawker is battling an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit brought by Hogan, who won a $140 million judgment against it - enough to cripple the company, which this week said it was exploring financial options. In 2012, Gawker had published a sex tape of Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea.

The saga has become a lightning rod for debate about the role of money in the legal system and civic affairs.

Omidyar, who made a fortune co-founding online auction site eBay <EBAY.O>, would support Gawker in its legal fight financially as well as via the court briefs, a person familiar with the situation said. But Omidyar has no interest in buying a stake in Gawker itself, the person said. Gawker said in a statement it welcomed the support from First Look, but did not provide details.

Media outlets including Dow Jones, the New York Times Co and Turner Broadcasting did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether First Look had approached them. A previous motion to intervene in the case was supported by several news outlets, First Look said, including Turner’s Cable News Network and the Associated Press.

Earlier this week, Peter Thiel, an early backer of Facebook <FB.O> and a co-founder of PayPal <PYPL.O>, acknowledged that he had played a lead role in financing Bollea’s litigation.

Gawker posted a 2007 article about Thiel entitled, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”

Omidyar, a long-time liberal, said on Twitter his actions were not personal. Thiel is backing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump for U.S. president.

“Also, I’ve never met Peter, respect his work as VC, and obv disagree on Trump and press, there is no ‘bad blood.’“ he wrote in response to a Twitter comment.

A spokesman for Thiel declined to comment on Omidyar’s backing of Gawker.

Many in Silicon Valley rushed to Thiel’s defence once news broke of his support of Hogan.

“Click bait journalists need to be taught lessons. Far less ethics and more click chasing in press today. I’m for #theil,” tweeted another prominent venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, on Thursday.

Khosla is fighting his own legal battle over whether the public may access the beach on property he owns in San Mateo County, California.

Thiel has donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which advocates for journalists who encounter beatings, threats, and other intimidation.

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