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Hulk Hogan's sex tape lawsuit against Gawker heads to trial

ST. PETERSBURG — In 2014, Tampa radio DJ Bubba the Love Sponge Clem sat in a lawyer's office, answering questions about a famously unsexy sex tape.

The video footage, taken in 2006, captured Clem's then-best friend, ex-professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, engaged in perfunctory sex with Clem's then-wife. As if this wasn't enough to absorb, the roughly 30-minute video was shot in Clem's bedroom, by Clem, who later testified that he burned it to a DVD, wrote "Hogan" on it, and stashed it in his desk drawer.

According to him, no one was ever supposed to find it.

LIVE BLOG: Updates from the courtroom in Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker

But years later, that sex tape resurfaced online, published as a one minute and 41 second excerpt by the New York-based news and gossip website Gawker. It is now at the center of a $100 million defamation lawsuit brought by Hogan that goes to trial this week in downtown St. Petersburg, an incongruous setting for a case that primarily interests First Amendment buffs, New York City news media and wrestling fans.

Here, in a community still known as a retirement destination, a jury of Gawker's peers will decide whether its decision to publish the tape, along with an unfavorable review of the Hulkster's performance, constituted a violation of privacy.

"This is a lot of excitement for a small courthouse," said Catherine Cameron, a professor of media law at Stetson University.

Apart from a judge's ruling that Hogan go by his real name, Terry Bollea, the trial has the makings of a choreographed fight.

Jurors will be shown the sex tape, though it will be off-limits to the press and the audience in the courtroom. And Bollea, 62, who is expected to testify, has received the judge's permission to wear a "plain bandana" to court, a toned-down version of his signature Hulk Hogan costume.

Even the judge, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell, has had her own brush with celebrity. She is perhaps best known as the attorney for the parents of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose St. Petersburg family fought against the removal of her feeding tube, igniting a national debate over life and death. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who intervened in the case on Schiavo's parents' behalf, later appointed Campbell to the bench.

Yet, for all its theatricality, the case centers around straightforward questions about a celebrity's privacy rights.

Bollea's attorneys say that the sex tape was made without his knowledge and that he was horrified when it appeared online in 2012 in a post titled "Even for a Minute, Watching Hulk Hogan Have Sex in a Canopy Bed Is Not Safe for Work but Watch It Anyway." He sued Gawker and Clem, later settling with Clem, who has never faced criminal charges for the incident, despite the fact that secretly recording someone is against the law in Florida.

According to Bollea's attorneys, the video is not and was not newsworthy when Gawker published it. In court filings, they have described Gawker's actions as "outrageous, irresponsible, and despicable," the work of a news organization so consumed with Web traffic and viral videos that it blatantly flouted the law.

"If Gawker can pull off things like this, nobody has privacy anymore," Bollea attorney Charles Harder said in an interview last year. "It could create a whole industry of peeping Toms and a whole industry of people willing to publish peeping Tom videos."

Despite what both sides describe as multiple attempts to reach a settlement, such efforts have failed.

Gawker's attorneys say Bollea's claims are unjustified, coming from a celebrity who has repeatedly made his sex life a matter of public interest. Aside from discussing it in his two memoirs and his reality TV show Hogan Knows Best, he has talked about it in lurid detail on Howard Stern's radio show.

"There's generally nothing as private as your personal sex life and the courts tend to sympathize with that information being put out there," said Cameron, the professor of media law at Stetson University.

"But if you are a public figure, and especially if you've made this part of your private life a topic of conversation, it makes it even more difficult to argue that it wasn't newsworthy. That seems like the hardest hurdle for Hulk Hogan to get over," she said.

In interviews with various news outlets, Gawker's founder and chief executive, Nick Denton, who is also a target of the suit, has said the Hogan post was in keeping with the site's mission of publishing stories that reveal the shallowness of celebrity culture and that more stodgy publications won't touch. But he has also acknowledged that Gawker does not have $100 million to spare.

Initially scheduled for trial last summer, the case was delayed until today, when jury selection begins. In the intervening months, Gawker announced plans to sell a minority stake to an investment company, a decision that Denton partially attributed to the need to raise money to pay for its fight against Bollea.

The trial's postponement seemed to bring suffering to both sides.

In July, a transcript of a recorded conversation in which Bollea went on a racist rant about his daughter's African-American boyfriend was leaked to the National Enquirer and Radar­ The Enquirer, whose reporters claimed the leak didn't come from Gawker, quoted Bollea as saying: "I mean, I don't have double standards. I mean, I am a racist, to a point, f------ n------."

Bollea apologized, but the backlash was swift. World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. fired him and removed all mention of him from its website. He was crushed.

"This business has been my life," he told Sports Illustrated. "I just can't believe everything I worked for my whole life is gone."

At one point, he blamed his use of the n-word on his Tampa upbringing.

"People need to realize that you inherit things from your environment," he said on Good Morning America. "And where I grew up was South Tampa, and it was a really rough neighborhood, very low-income. And all my friends, we greeted each other saying that word."

Bollea's attorneys said the leak came from Gawker, which was in the middle of its own public relations debacle.

The site had published a story that accused a relatively unknown male business executive, who was married to a woman, of attempting to pay a male escort for sex.

Under fire from readers who condemned the story as an invasion of privacy, Denton removed the post and promised a "nicer" Gawker in the future. Several months later, he announced plans to shift the website's focus from media gossip to a tamer subject — election year politics.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

Hulk Hogan's sex tape lawsuit against Gawker heads to trial 02/29/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2016 12:24pm]
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