A sordid trial is underway in Florida this week, pitting the debased former wrestler Hulk Hogan against the digital tabloid Gawker in a fight over a video showing Hogan having sex with his best friend’s wife. Be glad you’re not one of the jurors. Their task is about as appealing as choosing between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
But choose they must because a lot is at stake in the two-week trial. Hogan is seeking $100 million in privacy damages, which could ruin Gawker. Meanwhile, the jury’s verdict will affect the balance of power between wealthy celebrities and the media outlets that both enable and expose them.
The right choice for the jury is obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Both sides, if I haven’t made clear, are reprehensible.
Gawker is a vicious tabloid, run by a sneering Englishman named Nick Denton who delights in humiliating people. Denton and his oily entourage purport to expose the foibles of the proud and mighty, but in reality, most of Gawker’s articles are inane or pointlessly cruel.
A low point came last year when Gawker helped a gay escort make good on a blackmail threat by publishing a story that sought to out one of the escort’s prospective clients. The victim was not a public figure and claimed he did not know the escort, but Gawker published the story all the same to the dismay of sponsors and everyone else. Since then, Gawker has pledged to be nicer. But the pledge is likely just a business calculation—there’s no reason to believe Denton himself has discovered decency.
As for Hulk Hogan, real name Terry Bollea, what can you say? The one-time icon to millions of American children (now grown-ups) is a philandering cad and liar. Recently, his racist rants got him fired from the WWE, costing him whatever waning respect he still commanded.
While Hogan/Bollea has been telling a jury that he’s a private person who blubbered over the sex romp with his friend’s wife, he has through his career also manipulated the media at every turn to prop up his public persona. Like other prominent jerks, such as cyclist Lance Armstong, Hogan/Bollea also has a fearsome reputation for siccing lawyers on his critics.
This is why, like it or not, we must back Gawker. The tabloid is fighting for an important free speech principle and is pointing out, correctly, that celebrities like Hogan should not be able to use the media when it suits them and shut it down when it doesn’t.
And, yes, the case turns on whether Gawker’s free speech right should extend to publishing a video that showed Hogan’s ding-a-ling (albeit a grainy version of it). Could Gawker not have just written about the tape? Yes, but in this case, publishing the tape did serve a free speech purpose: it proved that a tape of Hogan, who otherwise liked to boast about his sexual adventures, did in fact exist despite Hogan’s denials. A ruling for Gawker would not amount to carte blanche for media to start publishing sex tapes.
This case is not about privacy. It’s about a powerful celebrity trying to use lawsuits to destroy those who report his shortcomings. If Hogan wins, all of us will lose. The jury should side with Gawker.