ST. PETERSBURG — Overturning a Pinellas County judge's order that sealed a large number of records in the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker Media lawsuit, a Florida appellate court ordered Wednesday that the records be released.
But what exactly will become available to the public — or when — is a bit of a mystery.
The decision from the 2nd District Court of Appeal comes in the middle of the trial of former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan's invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker. Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, is suing the website for invasion of privacy for publishing an excerpt of a sex tape showing him having sex with the wife of a friend.
In October and November of last year, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell entered several orders making many of the records in the case confidential. The Tampa Bay Times and other news organizations intervened, arguing that the order was too broad and limited the public's right to information about the case.
On Wednesday, the appellate court sided with the newspaper.
"The trial court's cramped view of what qualifies for public access was wrong," wrote Times attorney Alison Steele in the November motion challenging the judge's decision to seal the records.
Sealed records in the case could include details of an FBI investigation into an alleged extortion attempt against Bollea. They could also include video of Bollea's racist rant, a transcript of which was leaked to The National Enquirer last summer, prompting his attorneys to blame the information's release on Gawker.
There is one subject, according to the Times' motion, that the sealed records do not deal with: "None of the sealed records contains DVDs depicting Bollea having sex."
The sealed records are "approximately two dozen judicial records, including hearing transcripts, motions, and materials" that Campbell has been using to rule on motions filed by lawyers representing Bollea and Gawker "related to both procedural and substantive issues."
The newspaper's motion said those sealed records, in turn, have led to the creation of a secret paper trail of court filings and litigation taking place behind the scenes of the Gawker trial — out of public view.
"As a result, a significant portion of this litigation is being conducted in secret with no public oversight, in contravention to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Florida law," read the Times motion.
The newspaper's motion noted that in the past the judge herself has said "much of what the media has reported is flat not right ..." regarding the Gawker trial.
"Although the court did not mention any specific reports," the Times motion said, "it is ironic that the trial court criticized the press for reporting things incorrectly while at the same time keeping many of the records in the case hidden from public view and making it far more difficult to report accurately" on the Bollea vs. Gawker court case.
It's unknown when those documents will be released, however. Hogan's lawyers filed a quick appeal late Wednesday to keep them sealed.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.