'Techdirt' Defeats Defamation Suit By Man Who Claims He Invented Email

Tech news site Techdirt has defeated a closely watched defamation lawsuit brought by entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email.

Earlier this year, Ayyadurai sued Techdirt and its CEO and founder, Mike Masnick, over a series of critical articles, including ones that called Ayyardurai a "liar" and characterized his claims as "fake" and "fraudulent."

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Saylor IV in Boston dismissed Ayyardurai's suit. Saylor ruled that Ayyardurai couldn't prevail on his defamation claim, because Techdirt's articles could not be proven false. Only assertions of verifiable facts can be defamatory.

In 1979, at the age of 14, Ayyadurai created an electronic-mail system. But Saylor said in his ruling that creating an email system isn't necessarily the same as inventing email.

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"Whether plaintiff’s claim to have invented e-mail is 'fake' depends upon the operative definition of 'e-mail.'" Saylor wrote. "Because that definition does not have a single, objectively correct answer, the claim is incapable of being proved true or false."

Saylor also wrote that that Ayyardurai's complaints about the language used by Techdirt wasn't actionable, in part, because the posts included non-defamatory facts.

"The core underlying facts are not disputed. The articles repeatedly acknowledge that plaintiff did create an electronic messaging system that he called 'email,' that he did so at the age of 14 when he was a research fellow at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey ... that the program apparently worked well, and that he subsequently received a copyright for the program," Saylor wrote. "Thus, while the complaint challenges the conclusions drawn from the available facts, it does not challenge the underlying facts themselves."

The judge added that some of Techdirt's allegedly defamatory language was hyperbole, and therefore not actionable.

"Courts have repeatedly held that language such as 'fraud,' 'snake-oil job,' 'rip-off' and 'scam' is generally protected as hyperbolic speech," the judge wrote.

"It is clear, particularly from the surrounding language describing plaintiff’s claims as 'bogus' or 'easily debunked,' that the articles are simply using colorful and figurative language and are not making any fact-based accusation that plaintiff has actually committed a fraud," he added.

Ayyardurai was represented by Charles Harder -- the same lawyer who represented Hulk Hogan in an invasion of privacy lawsuit that drove Gawker into bankruptcy. In 2016, Ayyadurai also sued Gawker Media's tech site Gizmodo for defamation. After Gawker declared bankruptcy, the company agreed to pay Ayyadurai $750,000 and delete two posts about him.

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