ST. PETERSBURG — After four days of fielding questions about their feelings on wrestler Hulk Hogan and the bounds of the First Amendment, nine jurors were chosen Friday to decide a case that tests the limits of freedom of the press.
The six jurors and three alternates were seated for the trial of a $100 million invasion of privacy lawsuit brought by Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, against the New York news website Gawker. At issue is an excerpt of a videotape Gawker published in 2012 that shows Bollea having sex with the wife of his former best friend, Tampa DJ Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.
According to Bollea, the video was made without his knowledge.
The nine jurors, most of them women, were culled from a large pool. Some 500 potential jurors were summoned, all from Pinellas County, where the sex tape was made.
Some tried to get themselves excused as quickly as possibly, practically begging not to spend two weeks of their lives listening to the tawdry details of the case.
Others were let go after saying they already held strong views on Bollea's personality and exploits, or on the news media in general. Few had ever heard of Gawker.
Attorneys for Gawker argue that Bollea has boasted about his sexual prowess for years, often in forums with large audiences, such as radio or TV shows. By writing and speaking about his sex life, he has made it a matter of public interest, they say, and fair game for reporters.
"I have an issue with 'public concern,' " said one woman, who was later excluded from the jury. "I'm not sure how a sex tape is any of my concern. I just don't understand how that's freedom of speech."
The six women and three men seated on the jury reported knowing next to nothing about the case, and having a range of views on the press.
"I think people in general have to take the media with a grain of salt," said one man.
"If I find something of interest or concern to me, I tend to look it up," said a woman chosen for the jury. "I tend to do a lot of investigating."
On Friday, shortly after jurors were dismissed and told to return Monday for the trial, attorneys announced an unexpected twist in the case.
Todd Clem, who formally changed his name to Bubba the Love Sponge, was suddenly refusing to testify. The man who made the video, without whom this four-year legal saga and its attendant exorbitant legal fees could not exist, had decided to exercise his right to remain silent.
Tampa criminal defense attorney Mark O'Brien, who is representing Clem in this matter, said that if called to the stand his client would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege. He declined to discuss Clem's reasoning.
Attorneys for Gawker called the radio DJ's decision "troubling" and suggested he may have lied during his deposition and was attempting to avoid incriminating himself.
"It appears Mr. Clem may have perjured himself," said Gawker attorney Michael Berry.
While Bollea's attorneys did not plan to call Clem to testify, Gawker's legal team considered his testimony — and the chance to cross-examine him — a vital part of their case. They claim Clem has repeatedly changed his story of the sex tape's making, including whether Bollea knew he was on camera.
"I would disagree that Bubba thinks he perjured himself," said Bollea attorney Kenneth Turkel. "I have no idea what he thinks."
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.