ST. PETERSBURG — Hulk Hogan's legal team will be allowed to investigate its claims that Gawker employees were behind the leak of a racist rant by him captured on a sex tape, a Pinellas judge ruled on Wednesday.
In a nine-page order, Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell wrote that because of the seriousness of Hogan's allegations against the New York-based news and gossip website, Hogan is entitled to a "forensic inspection" of certain Gawker employees' computers, servers, emails and text messages. Her order went so far as to list the specific terms an investigator can search, including "racist," "Hulk Hogan," and "DVD details."
Lawyers for the former professional wrestler, whose real name is Terry Bollea, filed an emergency motion in July demanding the right to investigate what they claim is Gawker's central role in leaking sealed transcripts to reporters for the National Enquirer and Radar Online. Quotes from those transcripts include Bollea using a racial slur several times and were published and circulated widely, ending his relationship with World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.
"The limited discovery is being permitted for the sole purpose of determining whether or not this serious allegation is true," Campbell wrote.
The judge's order allows for a court-appointed expert — hired at Bollea's expense — to inspect the communication of Gawker's founder and chief executive, Nick Denton, as well as company president Heather Dietrick and former editor A.J. Daulerio. Other Gawker employees do not appear to be at risk of having their personal devices searched, though whether the judge's order extends to their work communication is unclear.
Gawker attorney Seth Berlin said his client plans to appeal.
"The order has no basis in law or fact," he said.
Bollea sued Gawker for $100 million in 2012, accusing the media company of violating his right to privacy by publishing an excerpt of a sex tape of him and Heather Cole, the ex-wife of radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. The trial was delayed this summer until early next year and a judge ordered the video recording and transcripts of the encounter sealed.
Despite that, the tirade by Bollea recorded on the sex tape — during which he at one point says, "I mean, I am a racist, to a point, f------ n------," reportedly while talking about his daughter dating a black man — found its way into the tabloids.
The time frame for Bollea's team to conduct its search is limited to between June 26, when a federal judge in Tampa ordered the FBI to turn over evidence to Gawker from its investigation of the sex tape, and Aug. 6 of this year.
The judge's order takes effect next month, giving Gawker time to appeal.
Since Bollea's remarks became public, Gawker has denied leaking the information. It has claimed the years-old recording had been widely circulated before it published excerpts. A reporter for the Enquirer has said he didn't learn about it from Gawker.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.