Gawker Media's latest legal challenge is a lawsuit threat from the owner of Ivari International, which is alleged to have performed a costly hair restoration treatment on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Gawker journalist Ashley Feinberg published a multi-thousand word investigative piece last month looking into Trump's hair and the shadowy circumstances around its upkeep. The story is a must-read deep dive into what's known as "microcylinder intervention," and how Trump may have paid $60,000, plus constant maintenance fees, to Ivari to preserve his signature comb over.
Now, Edward Ivari, the owner of the company, had a letter sent to Gawker on his behalf calling the story "false and defamatory" and an invasion of privacy. It also says the story inflicted emotional distress and committed "tortious interference." It threatens legal action and demands Gawker take the story down, post an apology, and reveal its unnamed sources used in the investigation.
A Gawker investigation on Trump's hair inflicted emotional distress
Gawker notes how the "defamatory" statements in question are actually culled from Ivari's own marketing materials and public records. But the validity of the claims may not matter much, considering the lawsuit could just be another tactic to financially ruin the media organization. You see, the letter was sent by none other than Charles J. Harder, the very same lawyer who represented Hulk Hogan in his successful suit against Gawker and the very same same lawyer financed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Harder is also known to be overseeing as many as two other lawsuits against Gawker as part of Thiel's elaborate scheme to obliterate the company for reporting factual information not to his liking.
If you've been keeping up with Gawker's legal troubles of late though, you'd know that this hair threat is part of an ongoing and increasingly nasty feud. Gawker was forced to file for bankruptcy last Friday, following its loss to Hogan in the invasion of privacy suit that put the company on the hook for $140 million. Thiel, an early Facebook investor and a co-founder of PayPal, is out to destroy Gawker for outing him as gay in a 2007 article posted to its Valleywag blog.
So it would seem that Harder is entertaining any and all lawsuits directed at Gawker, either by his own discretion or because Thiel instructed him to use his money to unilaterally destroy the company regardless of the legal merit of the claim. In reporting about the threat, Gawker's J.K. Trotter floats the idea that Thiel may not be involved at all, and Harder just may be a hack who's found a particularly lucrative target:
Again, it should be noted that, while Thiel has acknowledged funding multiple legal attacks, including Hogan’s, nobody knows for sure whether he’s behind all of Harder’s efforts to harm the company, or just some of them, or if he can even control what his money is used for.
At least some of the fights he appears to have been picking, though, have nothing to do with the kind of journalism to which he objects. If Gawker Media is, as Thiel claims, so serially guilty of egregious invasions of privacy against powerless individuals, why is he throwing his lot in with a lawyer intent on punishing Gawker for writing about Edward Ivari, the man who may have restored Trump’s hair to greatness, or Meanith Huon, whose coverage on Gawker "bolstered" his reputation?
This may sound like yet another mind-boggling wrinkle in an already stranger-than-fiction legal tussle. It's also a perfect example of the kind of chilling effect Gawker critics don't seem to have taken into account when championing Hogan and Thiel's victories. Being sued for posting someone's private sex tape on the internet is a justifiable claim. Being sued for reporting on someone's hair is not. If these kinds of lawsuits start being wielded more often as weapons — thanks to figures like Thiel and Harder — the cracks in the First Amendment won't end with Hogan or fake hair and they won't stop with Gawker.