NEW YORK —
Hulk Hogan’s legendary victory over Andre the Giant in 1987 — punctuated by a body slam of his late 520-pound foe — was the culmination of weeks of hype. Promoters billed the match as the “unstoppable force versus the immovable object.”
There’s been even more buildup to Hogan’s legal match over a sex tape. Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, is suing Gawker Media for $100 million for publishing a portion of the salacious footage in 2012.
Barring any late developments, the dispute will finally make it to trial next Monday in St. Petersburg, Florida. Jury selection begins this week.
Hogan’s legal team contends that Gawker violated Hogan’s privacy by publishing the footage and initially refusing to take it down.
Charles Harder, Hogan’s attorney, compared his client to Erin Andrews, the sportscaster involved in a trial of her own over secret nude recordings made years ago by a stalker.
“What’s interesting is that I get this sense that the public and media are so in favor of Erin Andrews,” Harder told CNNMoney. “But for some reason, Hulk Hogan gets treated a different way.”
Gawker’s defense rests largely on the First Amendment. Lawyers for the company argue that Hogan had made his sexual exploits a matter of public interest, and that the sex tape had been the subject of news stories prior to its publication.
“Gawker is allowed to join that very public conversation without getting sued for tens of millions of dollars simply because Hogan didn’t like the way Gawker did so,” Gawker attorney Seth Berlin told CNNMoney. “Public figures and celebrities don’t get to use the court system to punish speech about them that they don’t like. That’s just not the country we live in.”
Harder, who said Gawker’s conduct has been “outrageous from day one,” dismisses that defense.
“Can you imagine if the guy who filmed Erin Andrews cited the First Amendment?” Harder said.
Attempts at a settlement have proven fruitless
Harder said that both sides participated in a third round of mediation a few weeks ago at the behest of the presiding judge, but to no avail. Neither side specified what derailed the mediation efforts.
The months leading up to the trial brought turmoil to both Hogan and Gawker.
The WWE cut ties with Hogan in July after the National Enquirer and RadarOnline reported on racist comments made by the former pro wrestler. Hogan made the insensitive remarks on one of several sex tapes the FBI obtained as part of an investigation into a man who allegedly tried to use the tapes to extort money from Hogan.
July was a month of crisis for Gawker as well. The site was pilloried for publishing a story about a Conde Nast executive’s alleged sexual solicitation. Gawker deleted the story the following day, prompting two top editors to resign in protest.
The trial, assuming it goes ahead as planned, promises to be rife with drama. An “overflow” room has been set up to accommodate the press that is expected to be there, which will include a reporter from Gawker.
Hogan will take the stand, as will the radio host Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem. The sex tape, recorded inside Clem’s home in 2006, showed Hogan having sex with Clem’s wife at the time, Heather.
Bubba Clem initially said that Hogan, a longtime friend, was aware that he was being recorded by surveillance cameras in his home. But after reaching a settlement with Hogan in 2012, Clem issued a statement saying he was “convinced that Hulk Hogan was unaware of the presence of the recording device in my bedroom.”
There will also be testimony from Gawker Media founder Nick Denton and former Gawker.com editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio. Both are named as defendants along with the company.
Daulerio posted the footage on the company’s flagship site nearly four years ago. The clip was taken down under a court order in 2013. Although an appellate court reversed that ruling, the footage is no longer on Gawker.
But Daulerio’s commentary on the video is still online and has racked up more than 6 million page views.
Denton, who declined to comment for this story, has been candid about the threat posed to the company he founded in 2002. He sold a minority stake in Gawker Media to an outside investor last month, a first for the company, in part to gird against the Hogan lawsuit.
The trial will be held across the bay from Hogan’s hometown of Tampa, and Denton has said previously that the jury might not be all that sympathetic to a New York City website that has perfected the art of snark.
But Denton and his legal team are confident that they’ll be vindicated.
At a party last week to christen the company’s new offices in the Flatiron District, he seemed to reluctantly embrace his role as a free speech crusader.
“I never actually used to like to wrap myself in the flag and the First Amendment. It felt a little bit presumptuous to claim the privileges of the press when often we criticize the press ourselves,” Denton told the partygoers. “But we are the press, we are journalists, we rely on the defense of the First Amendment.”