Who invented email? Many people think it’s a matter of debate. But not Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, an entrepreneur who insists he invented email at the age of 14, and is suing the website TechDirt for $15 million for ridiculing his claim.
On Friday, TechDirt fired back by asking a court to throw out the defamation case on the grounds that its blog posts, which have called Ayyadurai a “fraud” and a “liar,” are opinions protected by the First Amendment.
In court documents, TechDirt’s founder Mike Masnick also asked the court to apply a California law meant to deter lawsuits that chill free speech and other protected rights.
The case is part of a long-running debate about the origins of email communications, which have been around since the 1960s. As Fortune explained last year, Ayyadurai claimed he invented the modern version of email as a 14-year-old in 1978—a claim that has been met by widespread skepticism among scientists and others. Ayyadurai has suggested that such skepticism is due to racism.
The TechDirt lawsuit is also important because it’s the latest example of a prominent individual using aggressive legal tactics to silence media outlets. Notably, Ayyadurai has hired Charles Harder, the high-profile attorney who presided over a series of lawsuits secretly funded by billionaire Peter Thiel that drove Gawker Media into bankruptcy.
While TechDirt may soon prevail in the case, the costs of defending a federal lawsuit in Boston, where Ayyadurai sued, could prove ruinous to the small California media company, which regularly criticizes expansive intellectual property claims. (In a new blog post about the case, Masnick also announced the creation of a “TechDirt Survival Fund” to help the website continue its reporting as it fights the case).
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In light of the costs of the lawsuit, TechDirt’s request for the court in Boston to apply the California law protecting free speech is significant. The law, known as an “anti-SLAPP” statute (for “strategic litigation against public policy”), lets defendants collect their legal costs if a court decides they were exercising free speech rights in a matter of public importance. While Massachusetts also has an anti-SLAPP law, it is much narrower, and therefore less likely to help TechDirt.
Meanwhile, TechDirt also argues the language it used to challenge Ayyadurai amounts to rhetoric that is common to any heated debate:
“It is like a debate over the precise moment when the civil rights movement began, or a quarrel about the essential attributes of a perfect cheesecake. These are matters of ‘personal judgment,'” said a new court filing.
For TechDirt, persuading a judge to dismiss the case at an early stage is important, since costs will mount quickly if the case goes to the legal process known as discovery.
Masnick declined to comment on the case beyond his blog post. Ayyadurai’s lawyer, Harder, did not respond to questions about the new court filings, or who is paying for the case.