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Some billionaire venture capitalists fund research into how human beings might become immortal. Others want to set up a series of artificial islands on which people could live without being subject to the laws of a specific country. And some get their lawyers to shop around for lawsuits they can fund in order to put a news website out of business.
Peter Thiel, the man best known for his early investment in Facebook (FB) and for being a co-founder of PayPal (PYPL) and Palantir, isn’t just any billionaire VC. He’s doing all of those things at the same time. The Immortality Project and the Seasteading Institute seem harmless enough, for the most part, but Thiel’s funding of a $140 million lawsuit against Gawker Media is anything but—if you have any interest in a free press, that is.
After Gawker founder Nick Denton suggested earlier this week that a wealthy benefactor was helping fund wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the company, Forbes named Thiel as the one providing the cash. Late Wednesday, the billionaire came forward and admitted to The New York Times that he helped finance not just Hogan’s legal case but at least one other current case against Gawker as part of a plan he has been working on for several years.
Thiel denied that his motive was just revenge for stories that Gawker wrote about him, including one in 2007 that publicly revealed him to be gay. He said that his campaign against the site was about “deterrence,” because he believed Gawker had pioneered a “unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
What about the threat that such a campaign might present to a free press or the First Amendment? Thiel brushed these concerns aside in his interview with the Times. “I think much more highly of journalists than that. It’s precisely because I respect journalists that I do not believe they are endangered by fighting back against Gawker,” he said. Is that going to help members of the press sleep soundly at night? It’s difficult to see how.