Floyd Abrams: News Sites Should Fear Hogan/Gawker Settlement

In a blog post this afternoon, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton announced that the media company would pay Hulk Hogan $31 million to settle an invasion of privacy lawsuit. The news comes less than eight months after a jury awarded Hogan $140 million in damages over Gawker’s publication of a video that showed the wrestler having sex with a friend’s wife.

Gawker, which filed for bankruptcy after losing the initial court case, will forgo its appeal of the judgment.

Hogan’s suit was bankrolled by billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who wanted to exact revenge on Gawker because the site had revealed in 2007 that he was gay.

“Gawker’s nemesis was not going away,” Nick Denton, the website’s founder, wrote in the post. “That motivated a settlement that allows us all to move on, and focus on activities more productive than endless litigation.”

The implications of this “endless litigation,” however, will have a lasting effect on the American legal system, according to Floyd Abrams, a partner at New York’s Cahill Gordon & Reindel who specializes in First Amendment & media law. Abrams, famed for representing The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, called the initial $140 million settlement “indefensibly high,” and added that while he was not surprised by today’s news, Thiel’s intimidation of Gawker merited great concern.

“The notion of a billionaire funding a litigation designed to put a website out of business is itself deeply troubling,” Abrams told the Observer. “The idea of an outsider as well-heeled as Mr. Thiel destroying a publication is as significant and troubling a First Amendment development as anything else about the case.”

As part of the settlement, Gawker will remove three stories from its website, including the one about the Hogan sex tape. According to Abrams, this is another indication that times have changed.

“Cases were settled in the old days with an apology, but now they’re settled by withdrawing a particular story,” he said.

Abrams warned that the settlement could set a disturbing precedent of billionaires starting wars with media companies.

“I don’t have any doubt that this case will encourage other well-heeled individuals who are offended by one publication or another to use the courts in an effort to harm or destroy those publications,” he said. “That’s what’s especially disturbing about this.”

Indeed, if a high profile site like Gawker could be brought down by a case like this, Abrams said smaller sites don’t really stand a chance.

“This is not just Gawker here,” he said. “There are a lot of small internet publications that are more at risk now because of Mr. Thiel’s intervention.”

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