TechDirt Founder Speaks Out On $15 Million Suit Over Who Created Email

The First Amendment is at stake, he says, in case represented by the lawyer who took down Gawker

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Jun 08, 2017 at 3:44 PM ET

Giving his first public talk about a $15 million defamation lawsuit that could stand to bankrupt his independent blog, TechDirt founder Mike Masnick spoke of modern threats to free speech at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York on Thursday.

“When we’re living in a time when we have a president who’s talking about opening our libel laws…it should make everyone here extremely nervous,” he said, his voice quivering as he spoke. “I’m very nervous. I am incredibly, painfully aware, that every word I’m saying right here could be used against me in court.”

The defamation lawsuit, which TechDirt has been fighting tooth and nail, centers around Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai’s insistence that he invented e-mail, a claim TechDirt has countered with various articles stating he flat-out did not. It’s a claim TechDirt has called “bogus” and “bullshit.”

Whether or not Ayyadurai actually invented the messaging service some believe was in use before he was even born, it’s undeniable that he has done well for himself as an entrepreneur. He’s amassed enough wealth to hire notorious attorney Charles Harder, who worked to bring the website Gawker to the ground while representing Hulk Hogan. (Harder is also credited more recently with getting Melania Trump $3 million from the Daily Mail, which claimed she was a prostitute in the 1990s.)

Harder’s work representing the extremely wealthy against press has garnered him a reputation as a modern boogeyman for independent media organizations.

TechDirt, which employs less than 10 people, is now working to partially crowdfund its journalism, given the high cost of legal fees. Its campaign is backed by Freedom Of The Press Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The blog, which has filed motions to dismiss and strike down the case citing a California law against suits intentionally meant to chill free speech, has already felt the impact of the ongoing lawsuit. Nearly on the verge of tears, Masnick said he had not initially realize how drastically the case would affect the publication. In the time since the suit was filed, TechDirt has been threatened with three other suits, and has cut back on its average number of articles by one-third.

“The lawsuit is a burden, a chilling effect, that goes beyond what people think,” he said. “This is more important today than ever before. We have a president who calls the press the enemy of the people. We have a press that can’t determine whether or not to call a lie a lie, and therefore we need to fight back…in favor of free speech.”