Friday, May 27, 2016
Litigation financing and the First Amendment
I wanted to share two takes on the news that tech billionaire Peter Thiel has been funding Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker Media. Simona Grossi (Loyola-LA) argues there is nothing inherently wrong with Thiel financing someone else's litigation, which represents a different type of third-party litigation financing, although she suggests that due process may require transparency in such funding arrangements.* Slate's Mark Joseph Stern argues that the problem is not Thiel funding the litigation, but that the litigation is possible because of elected state judges and state privacy torts that may not sufficiently leave room for free speech.
[*] In discussing litigation financing, Grossi mentions public-interest organizations providing free/reduced-fee representation. But she does not mention the role of attorneys' fees for many of these organizations, which affects how that financing model operates. Of course, the court knows when attorneys' fees are potentially in play, so any transparency concerns are addressed.
Both argue that Thiel's funding activities are protected by the First Amendment, although for different reasons. Stern finds support from NAACP v. Button and constitutional protection for ideological litigation, while Grossi finds support in an analogy to campaign finance. The answer, I think, is a combination of these.
Button does not do it alone, because the case was less about the NAACP financing litigation than about it soliciting clients to bring litigation (financed, obviously, by the NAACP, but that was not the focus in the case). Plus, the NAACP was, in some sense, seeking to vindicate its organizational rights (or those of its members) through litigation. It is harder to conceptualize Thiel as vindicating his own rights. While he benefits from destroying Gawker, it is only in the way that everyone benefits from the deterrent effects of tort liability (either because Gawker stops publishing mean things or because Gawker stops publishing at all). This seems different than the NAACP desegregating the schools, where the precedential and remedial benefits of a judicial declaration of the unconstitutionality of segregated schools are more direct. That distinction also may relate to the litigation financed--challenges to the constitutional validity of state laws of general applicability as opposed to individual tort suits for damages against a private entity.
But Button does some work for the campaign-finance analogy. Money is not speech. But speech costs money, so restricting the money that can be spent on speech necessarily limits speech.** Under Button, litigation is First Amendment activity.*** It follows that spending money on litigation also must enjoy constitutional protection. That does not get us all the way there, obviously. But it at least forces Thiel's critics to identify what makes this financing model different and uniquely harmful and to show why any harms cannot be addressed in other ways (such as through the disclosure that Grossi suggests).
[**] As a general proposition, even critics of Citizens United and current campaign-finance doctrine would recognize that, for example, government could not limit the amount of money a company can spend on (truthful non-misleading) advertising or on printing its newspaper or magazine.
[***] The Court does not specify whether it is speech or petition activity, although it should not matter. Petition activity costs money, just as speech does.
Lost in much of the hand-wringing is that Thiel's efforts, at least with respect to Hogan, will likely fail. It seems unlikely that the judgment against Gawker will stand (in light of both First Amendment considerations and the trial court's evidentiary rulings), certainly not in the ridiculous amounts imposed. Of course, Thiel's goal may have been simply to force Gawker to spend millions of dollars on its defense, which it has done, even if Gawker does not also have to pay millions in damages. If so, the answer may lie in fee-shifting, although drafting a fee-shifting rule without it turning into "loser pays" will pose its own challenges.