The New York Times recently reported that famed Silicon Valley investor and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has been secretly bankrolling “Hulk Hogan’s” (real name Terry Bollea) invasion of privacy suit against Gawker Media. The lawsuit concerns the publication of a sex tape involving Mr. Bollea and the then-wife of one of his friends. Yuck. Double yuck that Gawker saw fit to publish the tape on its site.
The yuck factor and legal merits of the suit aside, Mr. Thiel’s involvement could be a game changer. For more than 50 years, American defamation law has been tilting decidedly in favor of media defendants and libel trials have correspondingly slowed to a trickle. There has, however, been an uptick in newsgathering torts asserted against media entities and such cases usually involve trespassing allegations, or unwarranted invasions of personal privacy. Mr. Bollea’s sex tape suit falls into that category.
Invasion of privacy suits by celebrities are, however, rare. Successful celebrity suits are even rarer. That is because the zone of privacy of celebrities is viewed by most courts as much smaller than for average citizens. That view is based on the argument that a wide variety of information about celebrities is “newsworthy” and, thus, protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, suing only brings the invasion of privacy more attention and smart celebrities usually do not want to provide such stories with more “legs.” Finally, lawsuits are not cheap. It can cost several million dollars to sue a media company. That can put a dent in the finances of even very big celebrities.
The bank accounts of many of the lions of Silicon Valley are much larger than even the most successful Hollywood stars. There is also a close connection between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. The willingness of Silicon Valley investors to bankroll celebrity invasion of privacy suits, which if successful could potentially bankrupt web sites like Gawker, should send a chill down the spines of every web site operator who deals in arguably private content about celebrities. Whether this is a good thing is for others to decide. The world would probably not be a worse place had the public been deprived of viewing Mr. Bollea engaged in this type of “action.”