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Facebook has new free-speech problem

The First Amendment grants all American citizens freedom of speech. That means whatever venture capitalist oddball Peter Thiel thinks about the U.S. Constitution, and how he expresses that view, is up to him.

As a director at Facebook, the $340 billion social-networking company embroiled in a free-speech imbroglio of its own, Thiel has a different set of standards to consider, however. They do not seem to be consistent with a report by Forbes that he is backing a defamation case against Gawker Media by former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.

Peter Thiel to back Hulk Hogan's law suit against Gawker.
CNBC (l) | Getty Images (r)
Peter Thiel to back Hulk Hogan's law suit against Gawker.

Thiel, who began his career as a lawyer, is no ordinary voice among Facebook's leadership team. The billionaire cofounder of PayPal made the first outside investment in Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm-room creation back in 2004, parlaying a $500,000 check into a 10.2 percent stake and a seat on the board.

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Revelations that he is behind the court case that awarded Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, some $140 million are now a matter for Facebook's docket. The company, with some 1.7 billion monthly users around the world, has been accused of bias in its identification of "trending" news, a matter taken up by the U.S. Senate. The allegations, which Facebook denies, also were first aired by Gizmodo, a blog run by Gawker.

For First Amendment supporters, the Gawker-Hogan affair is a tough one. The website's outing of the sexual orientation of individuals, including Thiel but also some far less public figures, is reprehensible journalism. Even so, free-speech advocates understandably fear that Hogan's defamation case will set a dangerous principle that could create a chilling effect for other editorial enterprises.

Many Silicon Valley grandees probably will rush to Thiel's defense. At the same time, he may inspire even those repulsed by Gawker's brand of journalism to rally around its founder and owner Nick Denton, just as occurred for Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt when obscenity charges against him advanced all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One thing is certain, though. Thiel's role, including his statements criticizing tech-industry coverage by one of Gawker's blogs, puts the Hogan case in a new light. And the same is true for Thiel's position at Facebook.

Commentary by Rob Cox of Reuters Breakingviews.

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