“Nobody Knows Exactly What’s Going On”

Nobody knows exactly what’s going on,” Donald Trump declared in late December, speaking specifically about Russian hacking but also unintentionally describing his modus operandi. A lack of clarity certainly favors the demagogue, as jamming the system with fake news, shocking insults and nebulous policy positions was key to Trump’s political rise and is necessary to maintain his popularity. Nihilism and obfuscation are the tools and autocracy perhaps the goal, with all the double-talk sending dog whistles to those enamored with the Third Reich. At the very least, we’re staring at a kleptocracy that will enrich itself while causing the needless early deaths of countless Americans.

A blueprint for another means of undermining truth was established last year by Peter Thiel, a bloodthirsty technologist chock full of stupid ideas, who financed lawsuits by Hulk Hogan and others in order to bankrupt Gawker. The Paypal co-founder was so outraged by the indie media group, which he labeled a “singularly sociopathic bully,” that he immediately followed up his legal triumph by supporting for the highest office in the land a singularly sociopathic bully (no quotes necessary).  

Thiel claimed he would never utilize the method to attack any other news organization, but, of course, helping to create the machinery for a quick strike ensures others will employ similar tactics. Charles Harder, the lawyer who represented Hogan, is now handling a libel suit against Techdirt, another independent media property which can be driven out of business even if the company prevails.

In Jason Zengerle’s recent GQ profile of the lawyer, the display copy read: “Harder wants us to know he doesn’t hate journalists—he just wants to teach them some manners.” The lawyer acknowledged in the piece that he’s intrigued about possibly representing the President-Elect, who has absolutely no manners, in a potential libel suit against the New York Times, which, for all its storied history, is independently held. 

The opening of “Techdirt’s First Amendment Fight For Its Life,” the company’s open letter about its legal predicament:

As you may have heard, last week we were sued for $15 million by Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email. We have written, at great length, about his claims and our opinion — backed up by detailed and thorough evidence — that email existed long before Ayyadurai created any software. We believe the legal claims in the lawsuit are meritless, and we intend to fight them and to win.

There is a larger point here. Defamation claims like this can force independent media companies to capitulate and shut down due to mounting legal costs. Ayyadurai’s attorney, Charles Harder, has already shown that this model can lead to exactly that result. His efforts helped put a much larger and much more well-resourced company than Techdirt completely out of business.

So, in our view, this is not a fight about who invented email. This is a fight about whether or not our legal system will silence independent publications for publishing opinions that public figures do not like.

And here’s the thing: this fight could very well be the end of Techdirt, even if we are completely on the right side of the law.

Whether or not you agree with us on our opinions about various things, I hope that you can recognize the importance of what’s at stake here. Our First Amendment is designed to enable a free and open press — a press that can investigate and dig, a press that can challenge and expose. And if prominent individuals can make use of a crippling legal process to silence that effort, or even to create chilling effects among others, we become a weaker nation and a weaker people because of it.•

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