‘Inventor of Email’ Loses Libel Case Against TechDirt
A federal judge delivered a big blow to the self-proclaimed “inventor of email” on Wednesday, ruling that posts by the blog TechDirt calling him a “fake,” “phony,” and other names were not defamatory.
The ruling is a big win for TechDirt and its founder, Mike Masnick, and also for media outlets as a whole that have increasingly found themselves the targets of questionable lawsuits by well-funded critics.
With TechDirt, the case began early this year when entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai filed a $15 million libel complaint over articles that ridiculed his claim to be “the inventor of email.”
Ayyadurai, who runs a self-promotional website called “Inventor of Email,” developed an electronic messaging platform as a 14-year-old. His boast has been widely disputed, however, by computer scientists and technology historians, who attribute greater credit to others for creating email.
While TechDirt’s criticism of Ayyadurai was particularly scathing—Masnick also called him a liar and said his actions were “almost fraudulent”—the lawsuit was unexpected, in part because the blog posts did not appear to rise to level of libel.
In his 45-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Charles Saylor IV in Boston came to the same conclusion. The decision unequivocally sides with TechDirt and Masnick on a number of fronts, ruling that many of the remarks in question are not capable of being proven false—particularly about whether Ayyadurai invented email, or whether he is a “phony.”
A key passage of the ruling states:
As set forth below, the articles at issue do not dispute that plaintiff created an e-mail system. Rather, they dispute whether plaintiff should properly be characterized as the inventor of e-mail based on that creation. Accordingly, it is not clear that the allegations in the complaint are sufficient to show that the statements at issue are false. [my emphasis]
The judge added that, even if Ayyadurai had pointed to statements that could be found to be false, TechDirt and Masnick were protected by First Amendment rules that shield statements that are opinion or amount to hyperbole.
The judge observed, ‘“fraud,” “snake-oil job,” “rip-off,” and “scam” is generally protected as hyperbolic speech.’ The decision also observed that Ayyadurai (who now is running to be Senator of Massachusetts) is a public figure, which meant he had to clear a higher legal standard known as “actual malice” to prevail.
In response to the ruling, Masnick published a blog post praising the decision.
“We are certainly pleased with the decision and his analysis, which notes over and over again that everything that we stated was clearly protected speech, and the defamation (and other claims) had no merit. This is, clearly, a big win for the First Amendment and free speech — especially the right to call out and criticize a public figure such as Shiva Ayyadurai,” it read in part.
A Chill on Media Outlets
While Wednesday’s ruling will no doubt come as a relief for TechDirt, it was not a complete victory insofar as the judge refused a request to assess the case under the law of California, where the website is based, rather than Massachusetts, which is where Ayyadurai lives. The distinction matters because California has a more robust “anti-SLAPP” law, which permits defendants to dismiss a case quickly and collect legal fees if the defendant brings a flimsy case that chills free speech.
Get Data Sheet, Fortune’s technology newsletter.
The upshot is that Masnick and TechDirt, who turned to crowd-funding to support a legal defense, won the decision but are nonetheless left to deal with lawyers’ bills that likely amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the judge, in throwing out the case, refused to let Ayyadurai file an amended complaint (meaning he can’t try again in the same court), the “inventor of email” could file an appeal to a higher court—and force TechDirt to incur still more legal costs.
This tactic of burdening websites with legal fees is controversial because it can create a chilling effect in which media outlets can grow reluctant to report on certain subjects or people—such as the “inventor of email”—even if they have a clear legal right to do so. Such tactics can also drive a news company out of business altogether.
In a notorious recent example, the billionaire Peter Thiel secretly funded a series of lawsuits against Gawker Media, eventually driving it into bankruptcy.
Perhaps significantly, the lawyer who orchestrated the Gawker litigation, Charles Harder, also brought the case against Ayyadurai. In a statement on Wednesday’s ruling, Harder said his client would appeal.
“Dr. Ayyadurai has a long history of standing up for free speech. As a strong proponent of free speech, he also believes in truthful speech. False speech is not protected by the Constitution, and TechDirt’s false and malicious speech about Dr. Ayyadurai should receive no legal protection,” the statement also said in part.
In his blog post, Masnick also described the legal ordeal as “emotionally draining” and called for stronger laws to shield media outlets and others from frivolous lawsuits.
“[This] reinforces the argument we’ve been making for years: we need stronger anti-SLAPP laws in many states (including Massachusetts) and, even more importantly, we need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law to protect against frivolous lawsuits designed to silence protected speech,” said the post.
(This post was updated to include responses from Masnick and Harder. It also clarifies that Masnick described Ayyadurai as “almost fraudulent”—not a “fraud.”)