The intimidating winning streak of lawyer Charles Harder—who gained fame and fortune by suing media outlets large and small on behalf of Hulk Hogan, Melania Trump and other clients unhappy with their press clippings—came to an abrupt end on Wednesday afternoon when a federal judge in Boston dismissed Harder’s $15 million defamation lawsuit against the tiny but influential Silicon Valley blog Techdirt.com.
The decision—applauded by members and defenders of the Fourth Estate—comes at a moment when President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked journalists as “scum,” “dishonest,” “fake news,” and “the enemy of the people,” while suggesting that long-established judicial precedent be overturned to “open up the libel laws.” Reporters, meanwhile, have increasingly been the targets not only of lawsuits but of physical threats for simply doing their jobs. “It is positively heartening to see the First Amendment protections recognized,” prominent media attorney David Bodney told The Daily Beast concerning Wednesday’s ruling. “For more than a half century, the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of ‘breathing room’ for journalists and other speakers under our First Amendment,” he added, citing the high court’s seminal 1964 decision in Times v. Sullivan, severely limiting the libel claims of public figures against journalists to, among other factors, “reckless disregard” of the facts and “actual malice.” “It is encouraging to see the First Amendment protections applied to keep the cost of ‘free speech’ as minimal as possible,” Bodney said.
In his 37-page ruling, U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV concluded that Techdirt and its founder and editor, Michael Masnick, were exercising their free-speech rights protected by the First Amendment when they published 14 detailed blog posts last year debunking the claim of Harder’s client, Boston tech entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai, that he invented email in 1978 as a precocious teenager.
Tossing out Ayyadurai’s assertions that Techdirt had committed “libel, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress,” Judge Saylor wrote that Ayyadurai had failed to demonstrate any of those claims, and that the “plaintiff is a public figure for purposes of First Amendment law, and the complaint fails to plausibly allege either falsity or malice.” Saylor also denied Ayyadurai the opportunity to file an amended complaint. Defendant Masnick—who during a tearful June 8 presentation in New York to the Personal Democracy Forum frequently stifled sobs as he described the lawsuit’s emotional and psychic burdens, disruption to his life and family, and chilling effect on his journalism enterprise—celebrated his legal victory in a Techdirt blog post. “As I have said, a case like this is extremely draining—especially on an emotional level—and can create massive chilling effects on free speech,” Masnick wrote. “A few hours ago, the judge ruled and we prevailed. The case has been dismissed and the judge rejected Ayyadurai’s request to file an amended complaint. 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.”
Since the lawsuit was filed eight months ago, Masnick has raised around $250,000 to support Techdirt’s journalism from supporters as disparate as liberal-leaning Craig Newmark of Craig’s list fame to right-wing billionaire Charles Koch, whose eponymous foundations supports libertarian and free-speech causes.
Masnick added: “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, who is now running for the US Senate in Massachusetts.”
The 53-year-old Ayyadurai, a Trump-supporting Republican who has been waging a longshot Senate race against Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, vowed to appeal the ruling in a statement issued by the Los Angeles-based Harder—whose invasion of privacy representation of Hogan, bankrolled by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, garnered a $31 million settlement that drove Gawker Media into bankruptcy.
“Dr. Ayyadurai has a long history of standing up for free speech. As a strong proponent of free speech, he also believes intruthful speech,” Harder’s statement asserted. “False speech is not protected by the Constitution, and TechDirt’s false and malicious speech about Dr. Ayyadurai should receive no legal protection.”
Harder continued: “False speech does harm to readers, who are misled by it; it does harm to journalism, which is weakened by it; and it does harm to the subjects of the speech, whose reputations and careers are damaged by it. The public, and the courts, should not tolerate false speech, particularly when it causes people harm, and irresponsible media companies should stop using the Constitution as an excuse for their reckless dissemination of false information.”
Last year, when his legal work was being funded to the tune of $10 million by Thiel, who wished to drive Gawker Media out of business as payback for disclosing 10 years ago that he’s gay, Harder had represented Ayyadurai in a similar lawsuit against Gawker, which had also cast doubt on his email-invention claims. As part of the financial settlements that accompanied the $135 million sale of Gawker Media’s assets to Univision in August 2016, Ayyadurai received $750,000 to drop his lawsuit against Gawker.