An opinion piece published late Wednesday in The Washington Post argues Hulk Hogan’s Peter Thiel-funded lawsuit against Gawker Media has a sinister racist edge to it, because newspapers were also once sued by supporters of segregation.
Last week it emerged that Thiel, Pay-Pal’s co-founder, is bankrolling Hogan’s massive defamation lawsuit against Gawker, apparently in revenge for Gawker outing him as gay back in 2007.
That is highly problematic to Stuart Karle, a partner at the venture capital firm North Base Media, who successfully had a contributed piece published by the Post. Karle accuses Thiel of “dragging us back to Alabama circa 1960” through his legal crusade against Gawker.
How, exactly? Well, because during the 1960s, supporters of segregation also sometimes sued newspapers.
“On March 29, 1960, the Times published an advertisement describing the “unprecedented wave of terror” by Southern officials trying to shut down protests by black students. Although the harsh criticism was accurate, the ad contained a number of factual inaccuracies,” Karle writes. “Five Alabama elected officials filed libel actions against the Times over the advertisement, demanding a total of $3 million in damages … they relied on defamation laws that required publishers to prove the literal truth of even minor factual assertions in articles and that presumed damage to reputation without any proof of harm.”
Those libel suits were eventually halted by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan, which established that to be liable for libel or defamation a publication must show malice by either deliberately lying or showing a reckless disregard for the truth. The case, Karle notes, helped to protect independent media outlets from being hit with huge libel judgments while trying to cover desegregation efforts.
Jim Crow may be gone now, but in Karle’s telling, its defenders live on in the form of the sinister Thiel, who is eager to squash “stories [he] believes unworthy.” In 1964, the debate was over police violence against black protesters, today, it’s about videos of former wrestler Hogan having sex with his friend’s wife.
“A concerted legal campaign by a powerful man to force a publisher to spend all its money on legal fees explicitly because that man wants to drive that publisher out of business deserves as much scorn when done by a tech mogul as when done by racist officials who embodied one of the more tragic aspects of our history,” he concludes.
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