Hulk Hogan trial against Gawker set for next week

Hulk Hogan stands with attorney David Houston during a news conference in 2012 to address the lawsuit to be filed against Gawker Media, which rejects his privacy claim in the suit.
Hulk Hogan stands with attorney David Houston during a news conference in 2012 to address the lawsuit to be filed against Gawker Media, which rejects his privacy claim in the suit.
Published June 30, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Don't call him Mr. Hogan. Mr. Hulkster is off limits, too.

When former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan goes to trial here next week against Gawker, the New York-based news website, he will be called by his real name, Terry Gene Bollea. That order came from a Pinellas judge on Monday at the request of Bollea's attorneys, who are representing him in his effort to win $100 million in damages from Gawker for publishing an excerpt of his sex tape in 2012.

But that should not stand in the way of jurors knowing who he is.

Aside from his trademark mustache and white shoulder-length hair, Bollea will be allowed to wear part of his Hulk Hogan costume to court. Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell said on Monday that she will permit him one "plain bandana," presumably ruling out the varieties for sale at his Clearwater Beach gift shop, emblazoned with the words "Hulkamania" and "Hulk Still Rules."

There's no word yet on whether he will have to wear sleeves in the courtroom.

Campbell cautioned both sides that she expects civility once the trial begins.

"This is not going to be a carnival," she said several times. "There will be judicial serenity and calm, to which the parties are entitled."

Bollea's case against Gawker has been winding its way through the courts here for more than two years, and a two-week trial has been scheduled to begin in St. Petersburg next Monday. At its core, it's a case about whether Gawker's decision to publish one minute and 41 seconds of a roughly 30-minute sex tape violated Bollea's right to privacy.

His attorneys maintain that the video, which shows him having sex with Heather Cole — at the time, the wife of his best friend, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem — was made without his knowledge. The video's content is not and was not newsworthy when Gawker published it, they argue.

To prevent more people from seeing the tape, Bollea's attorneys have asked the judge not to show it to reporters and members of the public during his trial. Several media organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times, have opposed the request.

Gawker's legal team says that Bollea, in his celebrity persona of Hulk Hogan, has talked openly and in graphic detail about his sex life for years, thereby making it a matter of public concern. His avenues for this material have included his two memoirs, appearances on the Howard Stern show, and multiple Bubba the Love Sponge radio broadcasts.

In addition to Gawker, Bollea also named Bubba Clem and Heather Cole in his lawsuit, claiming they were in on making the recording. A few weeks after he filed suit, Bollea settled with Clem. And though his case against Cole remains open, his attorneys suggested on Monday that they were likely to resolve it as well, leaving Gawker as his sole target.

In the midst of trial preparations, Gawker's attorneys have been dealing with a separate issue: the FBI's reluctance to hand over information the attorneys say is essential to their case. The nearly 1,200 documents and three DVDs at issue came out of an investigation the FBI opened into an extortion attempt Bollea said was being made against him. The investigation ended with no charges filed, but the FBI has repeatedly denied Gawker's Freedom of Information requests, culminating in the news site taking the agency to court.

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Despite a federal judge's order last week that the FBI turn over much of its evidence, the bureau produced only 24 pages.

On Monday, it gave redacted versions of the DVDs to Campbell for her review. According to court documents, the discs contain as many as three videos of Bollea having sex with Cole. In each, it's possible to hear a "third party" speaking off camera.

Gawker's attorneys argued that without information from the FBI investigation, they could not go to trial, but Campbell denied their motion for a delay.

"We have a situation where Mr. Bollea, who's the plaintiff, has basically been asked: 'Are there other recordings here?' He said no. And we now know the answer is not no," said Gawker attorney Seth Berlin. "This is key evidence."