Hulk Hogan gets $115M verdict against Gawker at sex tape trial

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Testimony Of Woman Filmed Having Sex With Hulk Hogan Shown


Weighing free speech against privacy, a Florida jury has decided to uphold the sanctity of the latter by turning in a $115 million verdict against Gawker over its 2012 posting of a Hulk Hogan sex tape.

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Hogan brought the case three years ago after witnessing how Gawker, a 13-year-old digital news site founded by Nick Denton, an entrepreneur with an allergy to celebrity privacy, published a video he claimed was secretly recorded. The sex tape was sensational, showing the wrestler whose real name is Terry Bollea having a sexual relationship with the then-wife of his best friend, a radio shock jock known as Bubba the Love Sponge. Gawker's posting of the Hogan sex tape was accompanied by an essay from A.J. Daulerio about celebrity sex and a vivid play-by-play of the encounter between Hogan and Heather Cole.

In an era when digital networks have reshaped culture, raising tough questions about sharing and prying in society, the jury got to hear two weeks of testimony in a first-of-its-kind sex tape case where discussions of newsworthiness and decency dominated.

Hogan was the first to take the witness stand and attempted to separate his public persona from his true and private self. "It's turned my world upside down," he testified about Gawker's posting. His many interviews with press outlets, some addressing his sexual boasts and endeavors, became the subject of a heated cross-examination. "The person sitting here under oath is Terry Bollea, and I don't lie under oath," said Hogan.

Hogan's attorneys also played depositions conducted with Denton and other Gawker staffers, who had to explain tasteless jokes and their boundary-pushing philosophies on what's appropriate to publish. "I believe in total freedom and information transparency," said Denton. "I'm an extremist when it comes to that." Many of those same Gawker hands later took the witness stand to provide their journalism in a more flattering light, although Daulerio admitted Hulk Hogan's penis isn't newsworthy.

See images from the trial:

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Hulk Hogan gets $115M verdict against Gawker at sex tape trial
Hulk Hogan sits in court before the start of his trial Thursday, March 17, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker Media for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (Dirk Shadd/The Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool)
Former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, left, along with attorney Seema Ghatnekar prepare to take a break just after the jury was handed Hogan's case against Gawker Media for deliberations on Friday, March 18, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, is suing Gawker for $100 million for posting a video of him having sex with his former best friend's wife. Hogan contends the 2012 post violated his privacy. (Boyzell Hosey/The Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool)
Gawker attorney Michael Sullivan addresses the jury during his closing statements in the trial of former professional wrester Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker media, in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Friday, March 18, 2016. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, is suing Gawker for $100 million for posting a video of him having sex with his former best friend's wife. Hogan contends the 2012 post violated his privacy. (Boyzell Hosey/The Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool)
Hulk Hogan talks with his attorneys before the start of his trial Thursday, March 17, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker Media for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (Dirk Shadd/The Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool)
Judge Pamela A. M. Campbell raises her hand to swear in the jury during the Hulk Hogan's trial Thursday, March 17, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker Media for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (Dirk Shadd/The Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool)
Hulk Hogan talks with his attorneys before his trial Thursday, March 17, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker Media for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (Dirk Shadd/The Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool) MANDATORY CREDIT
Hulk Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, testifies in court on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, during his trial against Gawker Media, in St Petersburg, Fla. Hogan and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying that his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape filmed of Hogan and his then-best friendâs wife. (John Pendygraft/Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool) MANDATORY NY POST OUT
Former Gawker employee A.J. Daulerio, right, testifies at the Pinellas County Courthouse in St. Petersburg, Fla., Monday, March 14, 2016. Hulk Hogan is suing Gawker Media for $100 million for posting an edited video showing him having sex with his then-best friend's wife. Lawyers for Gawker Media began presenting their case on Monday. (Stephen Yang/New York Post via AP, Pool)
Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, left, and reporter A.J. Daulerio, right, sit inside a Pinellas County courtroom, Monday, March 14, 2016, in St Petersburg, Fla. Hulk Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, is suing Gawker Media for the publication of a sex tape involving the former wrestler. Lawyers for Gawker Media began presenting their client's case on Monday. (Stephen Yang/New York Post via AP, Pool)
University of Florida journalism professor Mike Foley testifies during Hulk Hogan's trial against Gawker Media Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, Pool) MANDATORY NY POST OUT
Hulk Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, waits in the courtroom during a break Wednesday, March 9. 2016, in his trial against Gawker Media in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, Pool) MANDATORY NY POST OUT
Gawker Media reporter A.J. Daulerio attends Hulk Hogan's trial against Gawker Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, Pool) MANDATORY NY POST OUT
Gawker Media founder Nick Denton attends Hulk Hogan's trial against Gawker Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, Pool) MANDATORY NY POST OUT
Hulk Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, leaves the courtroom during a break Wednesday, March 9. 2016, in his trial against Gawker Media in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, Pool) MANDATORY NEW YORK POST OUT
Pinellas County Judge Pamella Campbell, second right, meets with attorneys at the bench Wednesday, March 9. 2016, during Hulk Hogan's lawsuit trial against Gawker Media in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, Pool) MANDATORY NEW YORK POST OUT
Gawker Media's Nick Denton, left, and A.J. Daulerio, right, listens to testimony during Hulk Hogan's lawsuit trial against Gawker Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, Pool) MANDATORY NEW YORK POST OUT
Hulk Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, takes a moment as attorneys talk to the judge in court on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, during his trial against Gawker Media, in St Petersburg, Fl. Hogan and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying that his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted one minute and forty one seconds of a sex tape filmed of Hogan and his then-best friendâs wife. (John Pendygraft/Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool) MANDATORY NY POST OUT
David Houston, an attorney for Hulk Hogan, testifies Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Hogan's trial against Gawker Media in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape of Hogan and his then-best friend's wife. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, Pool) MANDATORY NEW YORK POST OUT
FILE -In this Tuesday, March 1, 2016 file photo, Terry Bollea, known as professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, watches potential jurors at the Pinellas County Courthouse, in St. Petersburg, Fla., as jury selection began in his case vs. Gawker Media. Opening statements are scheduled to begin Monday, March 7, 2016, in the civil trial between pro wrestler Hulk Hogan and a popular news website. (Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool, File)
Judge Pamela Campbell listens during a sidebar as Hulk Hogan, whose given name is Terry Bollea, testifies in court on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 during Hogan's trial against Gawker Media, in St Petersburg, Fla. Hogan and his attorneys are suing Gawker for $100 million, saying that his privacy was violated, and he suffered emotional distress after Gawker posted a sex tape filmed of Hogan and his then-best friendâs wife. (John Pendygraft/Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool) MANDATORY NY POST OUT
ST PETERSBURG, FL - MARCH 07: Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, testifies in his case against the website Gawker at the Pinellas County Courthouse March 7, 2016 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Bollea is taking legal action against Gawker in a USD 100 million lawsuit for releasing a video of him having sex with his best friends wife. (Photo by Boyzell Hosey-Pool/Getty Images)
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The trial also featured a less salacious element with experts delving into the media business through discussion of digital marketing and web analytics. One of Hogan's experts testified the benefit to Gawker from the sex tape was $15 million while another on behalf of the defendant told the jury it was just $11,000.

The mysterious background of the sex tape was explored by Gawker: Who knew a taping was happening? Was it a publicity stunt? Were there really secrets? But Gawker couldn't get the guy, Bubba, they desperately wanted on the witness stand to address conflicting accounts of who was knowledgeable about the taping. Nor could they inject many of the racist comments that Hogan had made during his sexual encounter with Cole to set up a possible argument that Hogan had an ulterior motive for the lawsuit. In the midst of a trial, a Florida appeals court ordered the unsealing of court records -; including text messages between Hogan and Bubba, Bubba's deposition testimony, what the FBI was told during its investigation, and a $5,000 settlement agreement between Hogan and Bubba -; but none of that made it into the trial thanks to Florida circuit judge Pamela Campbell's pre-trial rulings strongly favoring Hogan. Nor was the actual sex tape itself shown to the jurors.

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Nevertheless, the trial, which resembled the Scopes Trial in so much as there being plenty of publicity and an intellectual battleground around speech under concerns about morality, provoked a discussion of ethics and boundaries in media like no other. One journalism professor, acting as an expert for Hogan, gave his "Cheerios test," whether readers could digest their breakfast when reading, with Hogan's attorneys questioning bringing up Caitlyn Jenner, Madonna, Magic Johnson and others to probe whether it mattered if a celebrity injects their personal life into the public arena. Even Thomas Jefferson factored, with that same witness, Mike Foley, agreeing that it was good that the media speaks in different voices. "That was the original concept by Thomas Jefferson," said Foley, referring to the U.S. Constitution.

Ultimately, the case became a battle -; at least indirectly -;between the First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech and a free press, and the Fourteenth Amendment, where courts have determined that a right to privacy derives under equal protection of life, liberty and property. Like many states, Florida has enacted statutes that guard against intrusions on seclusion and communications.

"Do you think the media can do whatever they want?" asked Hogan's attorney Ken Turkel in closing arguments.

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

"This is not about political speech," rebutted Turkel to the jury. "This case is unique ... You're not going to condemn someone's right to engage in speech. You're balancing the right to make the speech versus privacy rights."

In reaching its verdict, the jury tipped that scale.

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