Talk about unlikely alliances: Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against blog publisher Gawker Media was secretly financed by Silicon Valley billionaire and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, according to multiple reports. Gawker is now using the revelation to ask an appeals court for a reduction in damages.
Hogan had sued Gawker over a 2012 blog post that had included excerpts of a sex tape depicting the wrestler. A Florida jury found in March that the publication had violated Hogan’s right to privacy, awarding the wrestler a total of $140 million in damages, including $10 million in punitive damages to be paid by Gawker owner Nick Denton.
The lawsuit raised some red flags within the legal community, with the New York Times reporting this week that it struck legal experts as odd that Hogan’s team not only refused settlement offers, but also dropped a charge that would have resulted in Gawker’s insurance kicking in for at least part of the damages. It seemed like the lawsuit was designed harm Gawker more than it was to benefit Hogan, leading Denton to speculate that it was financed by someone out for revenge.
The identity of Hogan’s benefactor was first revealed by Forbes Tuesday, and later confirmed by the New York Times. Thiel hasn’t officially confirmed his involvement, but he hasn’t shied away from expressing his distain for Gawker in the past, calling the media company’s now-defunct tech blog Valleywag “the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda.”
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Valleywag provoked Thiel’s ire by outing him as homosexual in 2007, and subsequently pointing a spotlight at Thiel’s conservative beliefs, which set him apart from many of Silicon Valley’s more liberal leaders. Thiel has in the past been advocating for anti-government libertarian positions, and recently made headlines with his decision to become a Republican delegate for Donald Trump.
Still, Thiel’s involvement in the Gawker lawsuit caught many in tech and media by surprise. The Committee to protect Journalists, which in the past received funding from Thiel’s foundation, said in a statement Wednesday that it “does not support efforts to abuse the (legal) process by seeking to punish or bankrupt particular media outlets.”
Freedom of the Press was even more frank Wednesday, saying that “billionaires secretly funding lawsuits to destroy news orgs they dislike is very dangerous to a free press.”
Gawker for its part seized the opportunity to push back against the March verdict in a statement sent to news organizations: “We trust the appeals court will correct the outsized Florida jury verdict and reaffirm the law that protects a free and critical press, which is more embattled and important than ever.”
Gawker took a first step towards filing an appeal in April, asking the Florida court that handed down the original verdict to reverse course. On Wednesday, the court denied that request and upheld the original verdict. This clears the road for Gawker to take the case to the appeal’s court.
Update: 10:53 am: This post was updated with information about the appeals process.