March 07, 2016
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet – in so very many more ways than just one – I saw a friend’s face on the live-stream screen from a St. Petersburg, Florida, courtroom on Monday morning.
His name is A.J. Daulerio, who I know from his days writing at Philadelphia magazine and editing at both Deadspin (where – for matters of full disclosure as it pertains to this story – he hired me as a contributor for several years in the early ’10s) and Gawker, a pair of Manhattan-based websites.
Daulerio was in that courtroom (with other defendants) facing off against a gentleman named Terry Bollea – aka Hulk Hogan or, to “Rocky III” enthusiasts, “Thunderlips” – in a $100 million civil lawsuit.
That suit, for which testimony started on Monday, stems from Gawker’s publishing parts of a sex tape involving the wrestler and the then-wife of a radio DJ known by the microphone-name Bubba the Love Sponge.
Bollea claimed the NSFW 2012 post represented a violation of privacy while Gawker Media (the named defendant in the case, as Daulerio does not have access to $100 million, as best I could ever tell) argues that the wrestler talked about his sex life so much that said video is protected under the First Amendment.
Before opening arguments commenced, lines were drawn.
Per Hogan's lawyer David Houston, in comments made to ABC News about a client who didn’t know the tryst was being recorded, "This is an incredible invasion of Mr. Bollea's privacy. The video was taken without his knowledge and or consent."
Per Gawker, "We are defending the First Amendment against Hulk Hogan's effort to create a world where celebrities can promote themselves around any topic, in this case sex, and then veto how the media covers their lives. Hulk Hogan bragged about his sex life for years [and] denied this particular sexual encounter."
"Mr. Bollea has spent years telling the public why he is a role model...Daulerio got a DVD that showed something different." #hulkvsgawk— Anna Phillips (@annamphillips) March 7, 2016
If you strip out all the tawdry elements mentioned (or excluded) above – and fear not, we won’t delve into them here – the case extends beyond the Gawker franchise’s viability of survival.
What the six jurors decide about the 1,400-word post could go a long way to defining privacy laws in the high-speed Internet days.
To some, it could represent a much-needed reining in of a freewheeling media’s behavior not beholden, entirely, to traditional rules and laws of journalism.
To others, it’s already an attack on press freedom at a time when journalism (and notions thereof) is under siege on many sides.
In the succinct words of a New York Times headline writer, it “may test limits of online press freedom.”
Which is to say the whole discussion of what qualifies as “newsworthy” in a share-everything era is a pretty big deal, not to mention fascinating to watch from afar, particularly when Bollea took the stand at 1:30 p.m.
What ensued from there was a unique blend of what happens to a man when his fictional and non-fictional sides meet, exposing fault lines in real-life confidence attached to one’s work and personal lives, not to mention the vulnerability of hair loss leaving a big, bad wrestler worried about an aura of masculinity.
Jurors saw a humiliated Bollea talking about “the cost of business” and how learning that a sex tape’s public release “turned my world upside down.”
Suffice it to say, Twitter lit up with jaw-slackened viewers (myself included) having a field day with screen grabs of the witness.
If it pleases the court, I need to adjust my do-rag, brother. pic.twitter.com/mDziMWa8fN— Brian P. Hickey (@BrianPHickey) March 7, 2016
"First of all—there's NO way Buffalo Wild Wings has a button to interfere with NFL games & anyway, that's illegal." pic.twitter.com/qbGn0LBCGC— Big Sexy Jeb! Lund (@Mobute) March 7, 2016
This GIF from WrestleMania 9 I made sums up the Hulk Hogan v. Gawker lawsuit pretty well. pic.twitter.com/bLelDUsoHH— Dan McQuade (@dhm) March 7, 2016
EAT— FanSince09 (@FanSince09) March 7, 2016
SWEAR TO TELL THE TRUTH THE WHOLE TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH
After about two hours of that, Gawker’s attorneys then got a chance to question Bollea, hammering at the point that the man relied on public attention to bolster his professional Hogan iteration.
The general tenor of that discussion, which carried on into the late afternoon hours, was an inquiry as to whether Bollea knew that Bubba had cameras in his house.
For a legal perspective, I called Regina Austin, professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who noted that a district court opinion in the case leaned toward Gawker's advantage, but only negligibly.
"It's two snakes fighting, so I'm not really interested in getting in the middle of that," she said Monday afternoon, noting that the case could hinge on how the jury interprets the propriety of gathering news in a unique situation.
As an observer from afar, though, Bollea/Hogan did a wonderful job of humanizing himself, perhaps to the detriment of his public persona.
Maybe that's the point: That even wrestling stars are human, after all, and it's folly to remain sidetracked with who they pretend to be rather than taking the time to understand who they really are (or who they really want to be). At a time when, culturally and societally speaking, we grapple with new definitions of privacy as everything just feels to be publicly presented.
Maybe it's high time that the country examines whether it's doing us much good to know as much about one another as we seem to these days. Sure, that's neither here nor there when you consider that this case ostensibly whittles down to a discussion on public vs. private citizens. But if it takes an absurd scene like the one Daulerio scared up to spark it, that seems rather fitting for America in 2016.
All I know is this: It's fascinating to watch unfold in real-time. Catch it while you can. While the case is expected to last a couple of weeks, the Hulkster won't be on the stand all that much longer.