The closure of Gawker � Freedom of Speech versus the Right to Privacy?

  | James Innes

With a plot worthy of a James Bond story – an “A list” celebrity, backed by a Silicon Valley billionaire, takes on a widely-read celebrity blog and forces it out of business – has recently been forced to cease operations.

Founded in 2002 by Nick Denton after he left The Financial Times, the Gawker media group was, based in New York City., its flagship blog, was focused on celebrities and the media industry, with the site averaging over 23 million visits a month in 2015.

Throughout its history, Gawker courted controversy, earning itself a reputation for posting videos, communications and other content that violated copyright or the privacy of its owners. Tom Cruise, Sarah Palin and Republican Senate nominee, Christine O’Donnell, were just some of the celebrities who had a brush with Gawker, or initiated proceedings against it.

However, when the site posted a clip of Hulk Hogan, professional wrestler, actor and TV personality, having sex with the wife of one of his best friends, Gawker found itself in a fight it was destined to lose. After defying a court order to take down the clip, Hogan filed a lawsuit against Gawker and Denton for violating his privacy and seeking US $100 in damages.

At this point in the story, enter Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, venture capitalist and hedge fund manager, best known as one of the co-founders of PayPal. Thiel had long held a grudge against Gawker, following the publication of an article about him in 2007, discussing his sexuality. For Thiel, Gawker articles, both about him and his friends “ruined lives for no reason”. Thiel contributed US $10 million in legal expenses to help fund several lawsuits against Gawker, including the Hogan case.

In March 2016, Hogan won his case against Gawker, and was awarded $115m for defamation, loss of privacy and emotional pain, with a further US $25 million in punitive damages.

For it was the end of the road. The company filed for bankruptcy because of the legal judgement against it, and Gawker Media was sold to the Latin American media group Univision Communication on August 16th, with the sale including other Gawker blogs such as Kotaku, Jalopnik, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Deadspin and Jezebel. However, the flagship was not included in the sale. Denton filed the last blog titled “How Things Work” on August 22nd.

For some, the closure of represents a direct attack on Freedom of Speech and The First Amendment by wealthy individuals wanting to hide from the public their misdeeds. For others, it strikes a blow on half of an individual’s right to privacy against intrusive media intrusion.  Either way, a Hollywood movie of events cannot be far behind.

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