Hulk Hogan is asking a Florida jury to slam the website Gawker for publishing a secretly recorded sex tape of the former professional wrestler as an unusual trial weighing a celebrity’s privacy rights gets underway on Monday.
Hogan, who is also a reality TV star, says his privacy was violated when Gawker posted a nearly two-minute excerpt of him having sex with the former wife of his then-best friend, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge.
An accompanying article detailed the consensual encounter, which Gawker called “a goddamn masterpiece,” and graphically described the naked body of the longtime champion of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
Gawker argues that its 2012 post is protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and contends it was reporting on a celebrity who has publicly discussed his sex life.
Jurors in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the star lives, will weigh his demand for $100 million in damages.
“That is a high-stakes proposition, not just for Gawker, who is right now in the crosshairs, but for all of the people who exercise First Amendment rights,” said Seth Berlin, an attorney representing Gawker, which will appeal an unfavorable verdict.
A loss could put Gawker out of business, he added.
But attorneys for the wrestler say he had a right to expect privacy in a private bedroom, noting that he was recorded there without knowledge around 2006.
“Our jury members appear more than willing to consider not only the First Amendment but as well the necessity of boundaries when dealing with significant invasion of privacy,” David Houston, an attorney for the wrestler, said in a statement.
The 62-year-old wrestler will go by his legal name, Terry Bollea, at the trial, but a judge is letting him wear his signature bandana in court.
“Jurors are going to be concerned about protecting First Amendment rights,” said Philip Anthony, chief executive officer of DecisionQuest, a consulting firm that works on high-profile cases but is not involved in the Florida trial. “It won’t get lost in the clutter of the sensationalism.”
The court proceedings, which could last three weeks, might still offer a dose of theatrics.
“Time for the real main event! ‘I AM’ going to slam another Giant! Hogan vrs Gawker!” the wrestler posted on Twitter as jury selection got underway last week. “Watcha Gonna Do Gawker? Only Justice Brother.”
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bernadette Baum)