Pro-wrestling icon Hulk Hogan proved last week that there’s more than one clownish, racist, litigious, penis size–boasting ex–reality TV star who really knows how to intimidate the press.
Last Friday, a six-person Florida jury awarded the Hulkster (real name: Terry Bollea) $115 million—$15 million more than he had asked for and more in punitive damages expected this week—from Gawker Media for posting a video showing the now 62-year-old Bollea having sex with Heather Clem, wife of his then–best friend, shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem (his legal name). Bubba had set up the 2006 tryst and filmed it, according to Hogan, without his knowledge.
The $115 mil was far larger than anyone expected, big enough to put a crimp in Gawker’s day-to-day operations, if only because it will likely have to put up $50 million bond until final settlement. Potentially, it could put the whole company at risk, something many Gawker-haters might not mind at all.
The judgment probably reflects the Pinellas County jury’s disgust with the media in general and Gawker’s creepy refusal to countenance almost any limits on celebrity humiliation in particular. The website may have lost the case when Hogan’s team showed former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio saying in a deposition that he wouldn’t run sex videos of anyone under 4 years old. He later testified that he was being sarcastic, but that’s a level of sarcasm that Hogan’s lawyers implied exists only in the rarefied media echelons of New York City—where, as they frequently reminded the jury, Gawker is based. (After suffering its own humiliation for gay-shaming a man who was apparently being blackmailed, Gawker founder Nick Denton promised to be up to “20 percent nicer” and to focus on politics.)
As advertised, the case is indeed a flashpoint between privacy and free-speech rights. But is it really “the trial that could redefine free expression on the Internet,” as Vox fears? Maybe not. First of all, legal precedent is almost never set by trial verdicts, and most observers expect Gawker to ace it on appeal. Hogan’s case had already been rebuffed by both Florida’s Middle District Federal Court and the state’s Second District Court of Appeal on First Amendment grounds. Sensing defeat in the federal court, Hogan’s suit moved to the Pinellas County court, where he found more sympathy, from Judge Pamela Campbell, and eventually gold.