Opinions From An Internet Lawyer: Gawker’s Conundrum

gawker defamation

You’ve heard by now: Gawker is caught in a professional storm.

Let’s take a moment to look at one aspect of the conundrum — a defamation lawsuit filed by the guy who claims to have invented e-mail. Will this recent Gawker defamation case add to the website’s woes? Or is it something else?

Fran Drescher’s husband, Shiva Ayyadurai, is joining the ranks of Gawker litigants. His spat? Ayyadurai insists he invented e-mail; Gawker says he didn’t.

Who’s telling the truth? Who knows; that’s a question for the courts. What makes the case intriguing, right now, is the timing. Ayyadurai’s suit comes on the heels of Gawker’s mega-million loss to Hulk Hogan, which raises the question: Did the Hogan verdict topple Gawker’s litigation levies? Is the website about to suffer some sort of content karma course correction? (Update: Apparently, yes; Gawker filed for bankruptcy shortly after this article was written.)

He Said; Gawker Said: A Defamation Case Study

In the not too distant past, the Washington Post profiled Ayyadurai. According to the article, 14-year-old V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai invented e-mail while Doogie-Howsering his way through a New Jersey university.

Interestingly, the WAPO piece featured a disclaimer:

“A number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called “email,” establishing him as the creator of the “computer program for [an] electronic mail system” with that name, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.”

Well, good ole’ Gawker published an unsolicited rebuttal, questioning the truthiness of Ayyadurai’s accounts. Long story shortened, Ayyadurai decided to sue Gawker for defamation; he’s asking for $35 million.

From the filing:

Defendants’ false and defamatory statements have caused substantial damage to Dr. Ayyadurai’s personal and professional reputation and career. As a result of Defendants’ defamation, Dr. Ayyadurai has been publicly humiliated, lost business contracts and received a slew of criticism relating to Defendants’ false accusations and statements.

Gawker Doesn’t Seem Worried, But Should It Be?

Gawker doesn’t appear worried about Ayyadurai’s case. (The bankruptcy is probably paramount right about now.) A site spokesperson explained:

 “These claims to have invented email have been repeatedly debunked by the Smithsonian Institute, Gizmodo, the Washington Post and others.”

Judging by the above statement, the website will likely argue “truth” and “fair opinion” — a straightforward legal tact for this scenario.

Will it work? Gawker may have a decent shot at escaping this particular legal noose.

His Whole Story

Ayyadurai’s beef goes much deeper than  this Gawker defamation case. MUCH deeper.

According to reports, Ayyadurai allegedly believes that an international conspiracy, possibly masterminded by tech incubator CSIR, has kept his name from gracing history’s pages.

Not only that, but he supposedly insists his falling out with CSIR involved a Family Von Trapp-esque getaway; except in his version, instead of the Swiss Alps, Ayyadurai escaped under the cover of a hot Indian night. Head over here for the whole story.

The Gawker Defamation War

But, as we mentioned earlier, the filing date is noteworthy. Ayyadurai’s case comes in the wake of Gawker’s high-profile loss to Hulk Hogan and revelations that billionaire Peter Thiel (longtime Gawker rival and apparent student of Vary’s School of Patient Revenge) has been a one-man crowdsourcing Godfather for people in hot legal pursuit of Gawker.

(NOTE: There is no indication, and we are not implying, that  Thiel has anything to do with Ayyadurai’s case.)

Our Opinion? Cockiness Can Land You In Legal Trouble.

Gawker brass may have been a little too cocky during the Hogan trial — and perhaps a bit too comfortable in their irreverence, overall. Which raises the question: has the media outlet previously crossed the defamation or privacy line without getting caught? And from a PR perspective, is the public simply sick of Gawker? Perhaps.

Footnote: Sadly, the gentlemen commonly credited for creating e-mail in 1971, Ray Tomlinson, died earlier this year of a heart attack.

Kelly Warner Internet Law

Kelly Warner is a legal practice that focuses on Internet defamation law. To learn more about our top-rated — yet down-to-earth — firm and team, head here.

Article Sources

Harris, D. L. (2016, May 10). Cambridge man who claims he invented email sues Gawker for $35M. Retrieved June 28, 2016, from http://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2016/05/10/cambridge-man-who-claims-he-invented-email-sues.html

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