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Gawker Seeks to Have Hulk Hogan Judgment Reduced

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05/25/2016 | 06:15pm CEST

Gawker Media says it hopes a Florida court will reduce a jury verdict and protect freedom of the press, in light of recent reports that claimed billionaire investor Peter Thiel has been providing the financial muscle behind Hulk Hogan's invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the online publisher.

In March, Terry Bollea, better known as the wrestler Hulk Hogan, won an invasion of privacy suit against Gawker after the online publisher posted a short video of Mr. Bollea having sex with a now ex-friend's then-wife. The jury in the case awarded him $140 million, an amount that Gawker said would be "ruinous" if it were forced to pay. Gawker is appealing the case.

Mr. Thiel, who rose to fame and wealth as a co-founder of online payments site PayPal, has been a prominent backer of everything from Facebook Inc. to floating cities to freedom of the press. On Tuesday, Forbes reported that Mr. Thiel had been providing behind the scenes financial support for Mr. Bollea's lawsuit. Later, the New York Times also reported his involvement.

"According to these reports, a board member of Facebook and a major funder of The Committee to Protect Journalists has been secretly funding a legal campaign against our journalists," Gawker Media said in an emailed statement Wednesday. "We trust the appeals court will correct the outsized Florida jury verdict and reaffirm the law that protects a free and critical press, which is more embattled and important than ever."

Mr. Thiel's motivation for being involved in the case is unclear, but his animus toward Gawker dates back to at least 2007, when Gawker's Valleywag blog revealed that he was gay. Mr. Thiel, who has since publicly discussed his sexuality, in a 2009 interview described Valleywag as "the Silicon Valley equivalent of al Qaeda." Gawker has since closed the site.

The news about Mr. Thiel's alleged financing seems particularly prescient, since Gawker headed into court Wednesday to launch its appeal to the verdict in its trial against Mr. Bollea. If upheld, the ruling could be financially damaging for the Gawker Media empire, which includes sites like Deadspin, Jezebel and its namesake publication.

At trial, the Florida jury was told that Gawker Media was worth $83 million and that CEO Nick Denton, who was personally ordered to pay Mr. Bollea $10 million in punitive damages, was worth $121 million. The company generated $48.7 million in revenue last year, according to information revealed at the trial. In 2014, it turned an operating profit of $6.5 million on $44.3 million in revenue, according to a company disclosure.

Mr. Thiel's reported involvement in the Gawker lawsuits casts a new spotlight on his activities beyond his storied career as an investor and entrepreneur.

Mr. Thiel is running as a delegate supporting Donald Trump in the June 7 California primary.

He also has been a supporter of journalism. He gave $250,000 in 2008 to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which works to promote press freedom internationally.

"As a true believer in the critical importance of free speech, I am delighted to support CPJ's fight for the rights of journalists around the world," Mr. Thiel was quoted as saying in the group's 2008 annual report.

In a statement, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said the organization received financial support from Mr. Thiel and the Thiel Foundation from July 2008 to January 2013.

Commenting on reports that Mr. Thiel helped finance Mr. Bollea's lawsuit against Gawker, he said, "We support the right of individuals in the United States and around the world to seek civil redress in cases of defamation. However, we do not support efforts to abuse the process by seeking to punish or bankrupt particular media outlets."

A self-described libertarian, Mr. Thiel also backs the Seasteading Institute, a group that aims to create a floating ocean city to escape "the problem of government monopolies that don't innovate sufficiently" and experiment "with new societies."

Mr. Thiel, though press shy, has established himself as one of Silicon Valley pre-eminent venture capitalists. He was an early backer of home-sharing site Airbnb Inc., rocket company Space Exploration Technologies Inc. and music streaming service Spotify AB. He also sits on Facebook's board and is the co-founder of Palantir.

His venture firm, Founders Fund, scored its biggest win to date in Stemcentrx Inc. last month when the cancer drugmaker agreed to be bought for as much as $10 billion by AbbVie Inc. Founders could make up to $1.4 billion profit on its $300 million investment in Stemcentrx, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Earlier year, Columbus Nova Technology Partners took an undisclosed minority stake in Gawker as the media company prepared for the potentially pricey trial.

Mr. Bollea's case stemmed from a post on Gawker.com in 2012 that included a video clip of him having sex with the then-wife of his ex-friend, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge. At trial, Gawker argued that the clip was newsworthy and protected by the First Amendment. The jury determined that it violated Mr. Bollea's privacy.

Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.

Write to Rolfe Winkler at rolfe.winkler@wsj.com and Steven Perlberg at steven.perlberg@wsj.com

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