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Gawker Can Call Joe Francis ‘Douche,’ But Can They Call Him ‘Rapist’?

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Gawker brought in the coming end of the decade in a way that only Gawker could: by running a “douche of the decade” poll. The winner, Girls Gone Wild honcho Joe Francis, was not pleased. He didn’t especially object to the “douche” label — good luck making an issue of that when The New York Times runs A1 stories musing on the nature of douchiness — but to another, more loaded word they used to describe him: rapist.

Francis’ back-and-forth with Gawker’s legal department is revealing in many ways, and raises the question of what, if anything, the gossip site can’t get away with.

In the original “douche of the decade” post, Gawker’s Alex Pareene drops the “rapist” label offhandedly, pointing back to an excerpt of an LA Times profile of Francis in which a woman who had sex with Francis when she was 18 raises doubts about how consensual the encounter was. The story hardly makes Joe Francis look like a charming prince, but as Daily Intel points out, “Francis has never been convicted or even accused of [rape] in a court of law.”

Flash forward to Joe Francis’ letter to Gawker, titled “Hey Nick, Your fucked,” in which he threatened to sue them for causing a “10 million dollar deal” of his to fall through thanks to the ‘rapist’ label. Gawker took a screenshot of the letter, to which Joe Francis helpfully attached a shirtless picture of himself (below):

Hey Nick,

I am suing you tomorrow personally. You messed with the wrong guy. No one make up lies about me and gets away with it. I lost a 10 million dollar deal as a direct result of you calling me “a rapist”. You will be paying me every dime of that back and more! Are you mentally retarded? Do your research first. I am coming after you harder then I have ever went after anyone. I am going to wipe you off the grid!!!! YOU ARE DONE! I will take everything you have. You, Nick Denton, are truly the “Douche of the Decade” Merry Xmas IDIOT!!! Joe Francis P.S. I sent you an updated picture of how I actually look now so you can masturbate to it because you seem to be quite sexually obsessed with me.

joe-francis-shirtless

Gawker legal ace Gaby Darbyshire fired back: “given his chosen career and his actions to date, it would be hard to say that your client really has any reputation of social probity and standing to damage at this point, now does he?” At that, Gawker graciously changed the “rapist” of the original article to “alleged rapist” and labeled Francis a “sore douche.”

What’s the punchline? Well, Gawker has certainly elevated the flamewar as journalistic practice to an art, and this is yet another time when they have used angry followup by one of their targets to fan the flames and get more publicity. Last year, NYU economist Nouriel Roubini likewise fell into Gawker’s trap when he responded to their (rather mean-spirited and unfair) posts about him with a series of angry rants which they duly published. (“Nick Denton is an Antisemite with a Nazi Mind.”)

Still, given the brazenness with which Gawker has gone after some of its targets, it’s pretty remarkable that they haven’t yet lost a big stack of cash in a defamation suit. The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford notes that “there are at least two outstanding lawsuits against Gawker at the moment: Eric Dane’s suit against Gawker’s screening of the so-called McSteamy sex tape – in which Gawker won a preliminary court battle recently; and Sean Salisbury’s suit against Gawker Media after a series of bizarre e-mails sent by the ex-ESPN football analyst to Gawker-owned Deadspin were posted on the site.” In the past, they’ve been sued by Fred “Limp Bizkit” Durst and walked away unscathed. One wonders if there have been other hidden lawsuits in Gawker’s past, but it seems unlikely given that they would probably try to squeeze a post or two out of them.

Is it possible that there have been out-of-court settlements for past Gawker transgressions? Yes, though it would be surprising if none of the disgruntled ex-Gawker employees elevated them to the public eye. Either way, the high profile of Gawker’s wars with the Joe Francises of the world makes for entertaining, occasionally shirtless theater.

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