It was oh so Florida. When our state grappled with a great constitutional conflict — the First Amendment right to publish versus the 14th Amendment right to privacy — the courtroom protagonists were Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media. And don’t forget Bubba the Love Sponge.
We left it to other jurisdictions to consider publication of the Pentagon Papers or Edward Snowden’s cache of top secret NSA documents. It was Florida that took on the monumental question of whether Gawker should have posted a surreptitious sex tape featuring Hulk Hogan.
Last week, six jurors in Pinellas County Circuit Court came to an unambiguous conclusion, awarding the retired professional wrestler an astounding $115 million in damages in an invasion of privacy lawsuit ($55 million for economic hardships and $60 million for what the jurors must have believed had been a mighty dollop of emotional distress). Then the jurors came back to court Monday and whacked the enterprise with another $25 million in punitive damages.
Somewhere amid all the salaciousness lurked some sure-enough important issues about the First Amendment, about privacy rights, about the wobbly journalistic standards employed in the digital age. How low would an Internet endeavor like Gawker sink to generate the 5.4 million page visits attributed to those grainy black-and-white images?
But too many icky details were strewn along the road to high-minded principles. Testimony indicated that back in the mid-2000s, an infamous Tampa-based radio shock-jock named Bubba the Love Sponge Clem convinced his wife to have sex with his good friend Hulk Hogan, whose legal name is Terry G. Bollea. Bubba videotaped the encounter. Hogan claimed he didn’t know that Clem was capturing the tryst on tape.
In 2012, someone sent the tape to Gawker, which has built an Internet empire posting scandalous material. Gawker gave the world a one-minute, 41-second excerpt, accompanied by some unflattering running commentary from a Gawker editor.
Among other questions facing the St. Petersburg jury was just how much privacy should be afforded a celebrity like Hogan, who, after all, had happily discussed his sex life on (among other public venues) the Howard Stern syndicated radio show.
Stern seems to be at the upper evolutionary scale of shock jocks. For instance, Donald Trump has appeared on the Howard Stern Show at least two dozen times over the years, according to BuzzFeed (a notch or two more respectable than Gawker). Given that Would-Be-President Trump discussed his sexual proclivities in considerable detail with Stern, maybe jurors figured that participants on that particular forum should be afforded special dispensation. Like a privileged confession with a priest or a private talk with your doc.
According to The New York Times, Hogan explained to the jurors that his persona as Hulk Hogan was separate from his life as Terry Bollea. Maybe Hogan, 62, the celebrity pro wrestler, needed to dredge up sensational attention, but Bollea the private individual was deeply hurt and humiliated by the posting on Gawker.
Of course, the happily sobbing Bollea’s head was covered with that trademark Hulk Hogan black bandana when jury delivered his $115 million verdict.