ST. PETERSBURG — Some giggled, some chortled, some just stared.
When Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan, entered a St. Petersburg courtroom Tuesday, backs stiffened and potential jurors craned their necks to get a look at the former professional wrestler. As a wave of recognition fell over them, many suddenly realized they had not been summoned for the usual foreclosure case or ordinary civil suit.
"Oh … " one woman whispered. "I know what we're here for."
A few, mostly men, looked extremely pleased.
Five hundred jurors were summoned to the courthouse Tuesday morning for the beginning of a three-week trial over a $100 million defamation lawsuit Bollea filed against the New York-based gossip and news website Gawker Media in 2012. At its center, the case revolves around a one-minute, 41-second excerpt of a sex tape the site published online and later agreed to take down.
The video, shot in 2006, shows Bollea having sex with Heather Cole, the then-wife of Bollea's former best friend, Tampa radio DJ Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. Further complicating the matter, Clem was the man behind the camera. Questioned by attorneys years later, he said Bollea had no idea he was being filmed.
Clem claimed he had no intention of selling or distributing the video, but years later, a copy fell into a Gawker reporter's hands. The website published an excerpt titled, "Even for a Minute, Watching Hulk Hogan Have Sex in a Canopy Bed Is Not Safe for Work but Watch It Anyway."
The edit showed nine seconds of sex — the rest was bedroom chatter — and it quickly found an audience. Bollea's attorneys say 7 million people viewed the video before it was removed six months later.
Shortly after the video debuted, Bollea sued Gawker and Clem, claiming they had violated his right to privacy, exploited him for their own financial gain, and inflicted severe emotional distress. He ultimately dropped Clem from the suit after the two reached a settlement.
Gawker's attorneys argue the post's author, A.J. Daulerio, was well within the bounds of the First Amendment's protection when he published the video, along with an unfavorable critique of the Hulkster's performance. Bollea's celebrity, and his repeated public statements about his sex life, had opened the door for such coverage, they say.
Presented with Gawker's side of the case — that the video of Bollea was a matter of "legitimate public concern," as the judge put it — several jurors scoffed audibly.
On Tuesday, Bollea walked into the courtroom dressed in a black suit, with a long gold cross dangling from a chain around his neck and a black bandana tied around his prominent forehead. The 12-time world wrestling champion spent most of the proceeding with his eyes downcast, reading a deposition from the case.
"Time for the real main event!" he tweeted earlier in the morning. " 'I AM' going to slam another Giant! Hogan vrs Gawker! Watcha Gonna Do Gawker? Only Justice Brother HH"
Warned that the case could go on for weeks, most jurors rushed at the chance to beg off.
"Which way is out?" one potential juror asked a sheriff's deputy. "I don't want to be part of this."
By the end of the afternoon, 106 remained and were asked to return today for more questioning.
Those with no excuse were asked to fill out a 14-page questionnaire. Along with standard inquiries about jurors' families and jobs, the document tried to gauge their exposure to the intense publicity surrounding this case.
"Do you follow celebrity news?" it asked.
"Have you ever had private information posted online without your consent?"
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.