March 18, 2016

A $100 million privacy lawsuit between ex-professional wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) and Gawker Media reached its final rounds on Friday as with lawyers representing both sides made closing arguments on behalf of their clients.

At stake: A potentially ruinous hit to Gawker’s finances, the vindication of a graying celebrity and an important legal question for journalists — in the Internet age, what types of information are private?

Michael Sullivan, Gawker’s attorney, sought to paint the company’s 2012 decision to publish an excerpt from a sex tape featuring Hogan as protected under the First Amendment in his closing arguments. He also attempted to impugn Hogan’s claim of emotional distress and asked the jury to consider the possible implications for free speech if they rule in favor of the ex-professional wrestler:

Hogan’s attorney, Kenneth Turkel, used his closing arguments to cast doubt on Gawker’s claim that the story was newsworthy and suggested the decision to publish the sex tape was mostly prompted by a desire to generate clicks. He also painted Gawker honcho Nick Denton and ex-Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio as cavalier toward the reputations and well-being of their subjects.

The jurors are currently deliberating the case, according to CNN’s Tom Kludt. They’ve been instructed by Judge Pamela Campbell, who’s overseeing the case, not to “visit the scene of the event,” according to Tampa Bay Times courts reporter Anna Phillips.

In a statement released just after closing arguments Friday, a spokesperson for Gawker Media expressed regret that their star witness did not take the stand. Bubba the Love Sponge Clem — the ex-husband of Heather Cole, whom Hogan was filmed having sex with — refused to testify in the case, a decision that was upheld by the court.

“There is still more to the story,” the statement read. “We expect the upcoming release of improperly sealed documents, important evidence that the jury should have been able to see, will begin revealing the true facts that the jury deserved to know about during deliberations.”

If the jury rules against Gawker, the company has a contingency plan. Heather Dietrick, the president of Gawker Media and its general counsel, told staffers in October that the company would file an appeal if the case resulted in a huge judgement for Hogan. She also said the company might not contest a losing verdict if the judgement wasn’t sizable, according to POLITICO Media:

“It’s quite possible that Hogan just gets a very small judgment against us, and then we have to make the decision: do we appeal that and incur further fees to vindicate the First Amendment rights that we know we’re on the right side of, or do we simply say, OK this very small judgment is a win and makes it very difficult for Hulk Hogan, who’s spent a lot of time on pursuing this case and could walk away with something very small,” to continue litigating, she said.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
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