A free press is one of the cornerstones of civil society, and many free speech advocates are rightly worried that Peter Thiel's vengeful crusade against Gawker sets a dangerous precedent. But let's not pretend that the left would care about this battle if the partisan affiliations of its combatants were reversed.
If a left-wing version of Peter Thiel was using his billions to fund lawsuits against a right-wing news organization, some liberals wouldn't utter a word of criticism. Worse than that: they would cheer this development.
They're even admitting it.
A few days ago, I made the following observation on Twitter:
If a left-wing billionaire sued a right-wing news org for revenge / shutting them down, you wouldn't care. You wouldn't. I know you too well
— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) June 10, 2016
My tweet was referenced on a recent episode of the Chapo Trap House podcast, which is apparently a group therapy session for Bernie bros. (If you think Matt Bruenig is some kind of martyr, this is the podcast for you.) It's hosted by Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and Will Menaker. In direct response to my tweet (right around the 49:30 mark), one of them said the following:
Of course I wouldn't be standing up for the right wing publication. I fucking hope some George Soros bankrupts The Weekly Standard or National Review. I have to balance the overall principle against the world we actually live in. I would much prefer that there weren't billionaires to begin with and no one individual had enough money or power to live out every one of their idiotic fantasies or vendettas against media institutions, but as long as that's the world we live in, I think it would be funny as hell if someone sued The Weekly Standard or Commentary into bankruptcy.
Note that an influential (although not super wealthy, or Thiel-level powerful) leftist actually did try to do just that to National Review.
It's refreshing to see such honesty, I suppose. Libertarians don't believe the legal system should be set up so that rich people can use it to censor speech they dislike—even if that speech is utterly reprehensible, as it is in the case of Gawker. Popehat's Ken White (a Reason contributing editor) states the matter perfectly when he writes, "we shouldn't just assume that crushing bad people is just or defensible. We don't need the 1st Amendment to defend popular speech, we need it to protect unpopular speech; our civic obligations are at their peak precisely when loathsome people are on the line."
But as long as the legal system is flawed, and rich people still have their wealth, some leftists would like to see their ideological opponents crushed by any means necessary. These socialists are so utterly convinced of their own rightness that they are perfectly happy to deny speech protections to people they disagree with. Their version of progressivism gives them license to celebrate the squelching of political dissent, as long as it's not their own views being squelched.
That's not how free speech should work: whether you get to to speak your mind should not be dependent upon whether people sympathetic to you occupy positions of power in business, government, or the courts. The system was designed to be immune to just this sort of one-sidedness. The First Amendment exists as a check against censorship—a guarantee that no matter who is in charge, everybody still gets to criticize them.
So free speech for Gawker, free speech for National Review, and free speech for the pleasant folks at Chapo Trap House—even if they would gleefully applaud the silencing of everyone to their right.