Billionaire investor Peter Thiel has at least one civil society ally defending his financing of lawsuits against Gawker Media: the founder of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, which has received at least $900,000 in funding from Thiel.
"Peter Thiel is a free man in a free society, and he has every right to engage in third party litigation financing if he wants to," Human Rights Foundation founder Thor Halvorssen told BuzzFeed News. “If he thinks that Gawker should be hauled into court and sued for what he believes is wrongdoing, and he is willing to finance the effort, that’s between Peter Thiel and whoever is prosecuting the lawsuit. There appears to be nothing illegal in Thiel's conduct."
Halvorssen was speaking by phone from the sidelines of the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of activists, dissidents and journalists that is put on by his foundation. He described Thiel as a "visionary, an innovator, and a person of principle."
Thiel's ideas have influenced the Venezuelan-Norwegian activist in ways beyond the political or ideological. In a 2013 profile, Halvorssen told BuzzFeed News that he got the idea to cryogenically freeze his body after death from the Facebook board member.
Forbes and the New York Times reported Tuesday that Thiel has helped fund a lawsuit against Gawker by Terry Bollea — aka Hulk Hogan — stemming from the site's publication of an excerpt of a sex tape featuring the wrestler.
Hogan won a $140 million judgment in the suit, which a Florida Circuit Court judge recently upheld. Gawker is appealing. "We trust the appeals court will correct the outsized Florida jury verdict and reaffirm the law that protects a free and critical press, which is more embattled and important than ever," Gawker said in a statement Wednesday.
Thiel says advocates for a free press should not fear his approach to funding lawsuits. “I refuse to believe that journalism means massive privacy violations,” he told the New York Times in an interview published Wednesday night. “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.”
Joel Simon, the executive director of The Committee to Protect Journalists, which has also received funding from Thiel, put out a statement Wednesday saying that while the organization supports people's rights to pursue defamation claims, "we do not support efforts to abuse the process by seeking to punish or bankrupt particular media outlets." Thiel has not donated to CPJ or HRF since 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Halvorssen, who spoke to BuzzFeed News before Thiel's Times interview was published, acknowledged that "defamation lawsuits are often used to silence journalists engaged in whistleblowing and uncovering malfeasance and political corruption," but argued that in Gawker's case, "this does not seem to be one such lawsuit."
Gawker has the "right to publish what they wish," Halvorssen said, and in return "they might be held accountable in a court of law."
In an interview with The Street in 2011, Thiel said he supported the Human Rights Foundation and the Oslo Freedom Forum "because their focus on dissidents engages the intellectual debate as well as the moral cause."