Hulk Hogan vs Gawker: Wrestling legend takes on website in $100m sex-tape legal battle

Gawker argues that the video they published extracts of was newsworthy

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The Independent US

During a long and storied career in the ring, Hulk Hogan defeated many formidable challengers, taking on and trouncing The Undertaker, Andre the Giant, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and more. But now the 61-year-old former wrestler is approaching what could be the biggest win of his career, in a Florida courtroom.

Hogan – real name Terry Bollea – is in the throes of a $100m legal tussle with Gawker, the website that in 2012 published extracts of a sex-tape starring the 6’7”, 302lb muscleman and his then best friend’s wife.

Hogan, who says his privacy was violated, has demanded $100m in damages; Gawker argues that the video was newsworthy and protected by the First Amendment, which safeguards free speech. No case involving a celebrity sex-tape has ever made it to trial. However, as Hogan recently told The Hollywood Reporter: “I have never been afraid to fight for what I think is right. I promised in the beginning that I would see this through to the end to hold Gawker accountable. And I will.”

Quite how long this well take is not yet clear: this week the jury trial, which had been due to begin in a matter of days, was postponed at the 11th hour, after an appeals court ruled that Pinellas County judge Pamela Campbell had not allowed sufficient time between the last motion filed and the beginning of the trial. But whenever the trial comes, a verdict in Hogan’s favour could spell disaster for Gawker Media.

The video at the heart of the case was made in 2006, and depicts Hogan having sex with Heather Clem, who at the time was married to his close friend, Florida radio personality Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem. Another man’s voice can reportedly be heard on the recording, which Gawker speculated belongs to Mr Clem. Ms Clem, who recorded the footage, says Hogan was unaware he was being filmed. She and Mr Clem later divorced, as did Hogan and his then wife; Hogan and Mr Clem also fell out.

 

In 2012, Gawker received a DVD copy of the sex tape from an anonymous source and published a 101-second excerpt, accompanied by an essay about the allure of celebrity sex tapes, entitled: “Even for a Minute, Watching Hulk Hogan Have Sex in a Canopy Bed is Not Safe For Work but Watch It Anyway.” Gawker argued Hogan had made his sex life a public matter by boasting widely about his carnal exploits, but Hogan was unimpressed and quickly sued. Judge Campbell soon ordered the removal of the video and the essay, but her ruling was overturned on appeal. The post has since attracted some five million views.

Founded by British-born journalist Nick Denton in New York in 2002, Gawker began as a gossip blog publishing irreverent coverage of celebrities and the media elite with a witty, snarky tone that was widely emulated. Allergic to PR, unrestricted by corporate power, it grew into an empire of seven sites including the sports blog Deadspin, gadget blog Gizmodo and feminist blog Jezebel.

Hogan’s sex tape was just like any other story, Gawker Media president Heather Dietrick told CNN. “It’s difficult to think of a huge news story about a celebrity or a politician or someone people care about that didn’t involve some information that that person did not want disclosed,”  she said.

Mr Denton and his family still own more than two-thirds of Gawker Media; the remainder is held by the company’s employees or ex-employees. But if Gawker is forced to pay the $100m, it may need outside investors to survive. This week the firm released financial results showing it had an operating income of $6.53m in 2014, from $44.3m in revenue.

The delay in the trial will allow Gawker’s legal team time to examine three sex tapes: all allegedly starring Hogan and Ms Clem, and all in the possession of the FBI, which confirmed their existence last week. “The FBI’s tapes and documents should help answer a number of questions relevant to Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit – whether there are still more sex tapes out there, who was taping and why and who all knew about it,” Gawker said in a statement. “We always want to get to the bottom of every story, and now we’re a step closer to knowing the full truth.”

At the trial, Gawker will argue that Hogan has made his sex life a matter of public interest by boasting about his substantial genitalia and more. But Hogan is expected to benefit from being in his home state.

Indeed, things were looking up for the former wrestler until this week’s ruling: Judge Campbell had said that during the trial the tape would be shown only to the jury, not to the public gallery. She also said Hogan would be allowed to wear one of his signature bandanas in the courtroom, albeit a “plain bandana” not a patterned one.

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