A year ago, Charles Harder was a relatively low-profile Beverly Hills litigator, bringing fairly cookie-cutter lawsuits for Hollywood stars like George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon against furniture stores and jewelry makers that used their names in advertisements without permission. Then came the case of his career, an audacious effort on behalf of Hulk Hogan to take down the gossip website Gawker, which published snippets of a sex tape starring the former wrestler. That the billionaire investor Peter Thiel secretly was bankrolling the whole endeavor made the case even juicier. Then in March, a Florida jury shocked the media world by awarding Harder's bandana-clad client $140 million - $40 million more than Harder requested. Gawker, once the king of gossip websites and an early influencer on digital media, soon filed for bankruptcy and was sold to Univision, which shut down Gawker.com as the appeals process began.
That's when Harder's phone really started ringing. Today, the 46-year-old attorney is perhaps the highest-profile media lawyer in America. He has been deluged by representatives of famous people who believe the Gawker case finally could curtail invasive activities by media companies. And since the verdict, he has become involved in three of the most headline-generating news stories of the year. Ousted Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and his wife, Elizabeth, enlisted Harder to attempt to squelch unflattering media coverage in New York magazine over the sexual harassment allegations against him. Actress Amber Heard hired Harder to sue the comedian Doug Stanhope, who, in the midst of Heard's salacious divorce from Johnny Depp, wrote online that she was blackmailing the actor. And then there's Melania Trump, whom Harder is representing in a lawsuit over a Daily Mail article that suggested the potential first lady worked as a paid escort in the 1990s. That suit prompted a rare public retraction and mea culpa from the U.K. tabloid - but Harder isn't backing off. "We appreciate that the Daily Mail finally admitted that it got the story completely wrong, but it is a half-hearted retraction and apology," he says in his first extensive interview since taking on Trump and Ailes as clients. "It will not stop or even slow the lawsuit."
It's Harder's bullish attitude that inspires invective from members of the media and a growing number of admirers among those at the center of the media's attention. The "rich man's favorite tool for assaulting journalism" is how Forbes writer Katia Savchuk characterized Harder. Warns Katie Townsend, litigation director at the media-rights advocacy group Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: "The Gawker verdict represents that someone with financial backing can effectively eliminate a media organization. It has a chilling effect."
Harder, who says he's still getting used to his own celebrity status, won't be deterred: "I'm anything but the enemy of a free press," he counters. "I believe very strongly in a free press. But I don't believe in a reckless press. The First Amendment isn't unlimited."
Harder seems to have appeared on the media scene out of nowhere, but before Gawker and Ailes and Trump, the Loyola Law School graduate co-authored a treatise called Entertainment Law & Litigation and spent years developing a particular legal expertise - prosecution of so-called "likeness rights." He now touts his practice somewhat menacingly as "reputation protection," and what once sounded banal suddenly has become highly in-demand by people in the media's crosshairs. Whereas the $550-an-hour litigator once quietly obtained settlements for Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper and other celebrities in cases over the misappropriation of their names and images, now the simple act of him sending a warning letter makes news. "I've been doing it for years, but I'm definitely doing it at higher frequency," he says. "There's higher-profile clients and more stories about me, but otherwise, my life hasn't changed much. I'm still driving the same 12-year-old Lexus SUV and living in the same small house [in West Los Angeles with his wife, Kathleen], raising kids."
Harder (left) with Hogan during the Gawker trial in March in Pinellas County Court in Florida.
Harder won't say whether he has spoken to Donald Trump about the Melania case, nor will he even admit to representing Ailes. (Told his threatening letter to New York magazine and its tenacious writer Gabriel Sherman was leaked and rendered his representation public, he responds, "Is it? If someone sends a private letter, is it public?") He declines to reveal what specifically about Sherman's reporting, which included a recent cover story calling Ailes "the most powerful, and predatory, man in media," was inaccurate. But, he adds, "Separate and apart from Mr. Ailes, reporters who say things that areand not factual in nature and are acting recklessly are subjecting themselves to liability. When that situation is occurring, any reporter should anticipate [repercussions]."
Harder is much more comfortable talking about the invasion of privacy case that consumed four years of his life and required him to spend weeks this winter in St. Petersburg, Fla. Despite criticism in certain quarters that Thiel is using Hogan (and thus Harder) to wage a personal war on Gawker founder Nick Denton after the website outed Thiel as gay, Harder argues that the motive doesn't change the merits of the case - or the verdict. "[Hogan] needed help from someone because Gawker didn't bat an eyelash spending $10 million trying to beat him," he says. "The deck is stacked against plaintiffs. I don't know too many people who can combat $10 million. And I have to say, they drove up the bills. They were the ones bringing motion after motion, taking subpoenas, making 10 to 15 appeals on every issue. What Peter Thiel was able to do was level the playing field. That's all he did."
Denton, in an email to THR, takes exception to that characterization. "Thiel is a tech billionaire on a mission, and his Hollywood lawyer represents Roger Ailes and the Trumps, among many others," Denton writes. "They say Peter Thiel has no sense of humor. But the idea that his team are the underdogs is hilarious."
Harder, who grew up in Encino, a few freeway exits from Hollywood, and rode a bike across the country at age 19, became interested in entertainment in the 1990s while in law school. In 2013, he, along with entertainment experts Douglas Mirell and Jeffrey Abrams, launched their own 10-lawyer boutique firm on Rodeo Drive, a fraction of the size of most L.A. firms handling cases of national import. In his offices, Harder keeps charts mapping the differences in libel and privacy laws throughout the country. He also has become a pro on where to strategically file cases. The Hogan suit took place in Florida, where a jury might be friendlier to a local celebrity. The Heard case was in Nevada before it was dropped. Melania's lawsuit is proceeding in Maryland, which some legal experts speculate is because of its plaintiff-friendly rules that won't require her to pay the Daily Mail's legal bill if she loses. (Harder says he doesn't anticipate much movement in that case before the presidential election because the state has a backed-up trial docket.)
Ailes, Trump, and Heard
Could another Trump media suit be in the works? On Sept. 17, Donald, who has made his feuds with various media outlets a cornerstone of his campaign, tweeted that his lawyers want him to sue The New York Times for "irresponsible intent" in its reporting. While "irresponsible intent" is not an actual legal claim and the GOP nominee didn't specifically mention Harder, it's not a huge leap to imagine which lawyer would bring a defamation case on his behalf. (In June, Harder threatened a defamation suit against Gawker on behalf of a New York hair restoration clinic that allegedly services Trump over a story titled, "Is Donald Trump's Hair a $60,000 Weave? A Gawker Investigation.")
To beat the Times, Harder would have to show the paper acted with "actual malice," the very high hurdle articulated in the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, which requires public figures who sue the media to establish a motive or gross negligence. It's a standard Trump has suggested would be challenged if he becomes president, and Harder could be the lawyer who is charged with attempting to do so. Indeed, Harder says he agrees libel laws need a further look. And he has specific ideas (like a limitation on early appeals and fewer fee awards for the winning side in lawsuits) that would make many First Amendment advocates cringe and some in Hollywood cheer.
"I think the actual malice standard is too stringent," says Harder, perhaps previewing how a Donald Trump administration might approach the media and the laws governing it. "If you look at Justice [Byron] White's opinion in a Supreme Court case 20 years after New York Times v. Sullivan, he wrote a dissent and said we all made a mistake, that it has gotten to a point where it has created huge problems for a public figure who is defamed to do anything about it."
'REESE RINGS' AND 'EASTWOOD' FURNITURE: PROTECTING STAR NAMES AND IMAGES
The actress sued several jewelry vendors selling a diamond-encrusted watch advertised as having been worn by her in her Oscar-winning performance in The Blind Side. (Harder settled the case in 2014.)
Bradley Cooper and Liam Neeson
The A-Team co-stars sued home theater companies Vutec and First Impressions Theme Theatres for using their images from the film in ads. (Harder settled the case in 2014.)
The legend sued a company called Evofurniture for selling ottomans and chairs branded "Clint" and "Eastwood" and using language like "million dollar baby" in promos. (The case settled in 2012.)
Harder threatened the conservative website Truth Revolt after it wrote she sexually molested her sister when they were children. (The site refused to take down the story, citing passages in Dunham's memoir.)
The Oscar winner litigated for two years against Sears and other retailers for selling jewelry dubbed "Reese Rings" and including her picture in ads. (Harder settled the case in February.)
This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.