As Nicholas Lemann wrote for The New Yorker in May, Thiel—who is a graduate of Stanford Law School—is “surely aware of this case’s potential to begin a reëxamination of the fundamental questions in American press law, far beyond the fate of Gawker.” (Remember, too, Lemann says, that Thiel is backing Donald Trump in the presidential campaign—the same Donald Trump who trumpeted his plan to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”)
Writing for the Times, Thiel attempts to justify his antagonism of the press by drawing a connection between Gawker’s publication of the Hogan tape and a piece of legislation aimed at discouraging what’s often known as “revenge porn,” or the distribution non-consensual sexual imagery.
The Intimate Privacy Protection Act, introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, would make it illegal to distribute a private, visual depiction of a person’s “intimate parts” or of a person engaging in sexually explicit conduct, without that person’s consent.
“Nicknamed the Gawker Bill, it would also provide criminal consequences for third parties who sought to profit from such material,” Thiel wrote. Except it’s not really nicknamed “the Gawker Bill,” according to Speier’s office.
“That is 100 percent not a thing,” her chief of staff, Josh Connolly, told me. “And it’s really self-serving, I think, on his part, to try to conflate our bill with their very specific case that has all sorts of loaded issues associated with it.”
The bill’s intent was to provide a level of protection for individuals—with non-famous, non-wealthy people in mind, he told me. A typical example might be a woman whose ex-boyfriend uploads to the Internet nude photos of her, without her consent. “This [legislation] was in no way crafted in response to, or to address the Gawker case,” Connolly said.
Speier said in a statment provided by her office that the bill is meant to “address a range of privacy violations that have had devastating impacts on the lives and livelihoods of countless victims, from residents in assisted living centers to patients seeking confidential medical care to individuals involved in bitter breakups.”
“It is not ‘the Gawker bill,’” she added.
In an age where anyone can be a publisher, government regulation of what might be deemed “news” is thorny, and yet, Speier specifically intended to grant the press an exemption. The law would not apply to cases in which disclosing such imagery is in “the bona fide public interest,” according to the language of the bill. “Our congressional intent is that it really should carve out [an exception] for any sort of legitimate conduct by the press,” Connolly said.
Legitimacy, of course, is a standard that is sometimes decided by the courts. That’s what happened to Gawker, and the outcome of that case may be the start of what Lemann calls a “protracted war” against journalists at a time when the press is “far more vulnerable, economically and culturally, than it used to be.”