Privacy vs free speech: Hulk Hogan beats Gawker in lawsuit

Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, sits in court during his trial against Gawker Media, in St Petersburg, Florida March 17, 2016. © Dirk Shadd
The two-week trial of Hulk Hogan versus Gawker has ended with a Florida jury awarding $115 million to former pro wrestler. The case began three years ago when Gawker published a sex tape that the wrestler claims was recorded secretly.

Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, testified that the sex tape “turned my world upside down.”

Given the contents of the video, it’s hard to argue that. The tape shows him having sex with Heather Cole, then-wife of his best friend, Tampa-area radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge, the Hollywood Reporter reports. It also featured Bollea making racist comments.

Gawker struggled in court from the very beginning. The pre-trial rulings by Florida Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell left the website without the ability to use any information from a lawsuit between Bollea and Bubba the Love Sponge – also known as Todd Alan Clem. In addition, Gawker’s attorneys were not allowed to bring up any of the racial comments made on the tape. Gawker’s defense had hoped to use the racial comments as evidence for an ulterior motive by Bollea for the lawsuit. However, no part of the sex tape was shown to jurors – not even excerpts published by Gawker.

Gawker’s lawyers presented their argument as a battle for the First Amendment rights to free speech and free press. Meanwhile, Bollea’s lawyers made their case for defending the Fourteenth Amendment, allowing citizens to have the right to privacy under equal protection of life, liberty, and property.

The 13-year-old digital news site is not new to controversy. Once the home of the Gawker Stalker, a map of celebrity sightings that allowed users to “visually pinpoint the location of every stalkworthy [sic] celebrity as soon as they're spotted,” Gawker lost two editors over an article that outed a Conde Nast executive.

The executive had been blackmailed by a male escort who provided Gawker with texts and information about the executive. The editors resigned after the article was removed with permission by the editorial team, the New York Times reported.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder, has already indicated plans to appeal the decision.

Michael Sullivan, Gawker’s attorney, said in his closing arguments "We don't need the First Amendment to protect what's popular. We need a First Amendment to protect what's controversial."

Gawker has yet to post a comment on the ruling.