Embattled Gawker Media founder Nick Denton took to — where else? — the Internet on Tuesday to voice his outrage over a St. Petersburg, Fla., jury awarding Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, a total of $140.1 million, after the wrestler’s attorneys argued that Gawker violated their client’s privacy rights when it posted a clip of a leaked sex tape.
Denton called the reward “extraordinary” in size, noting that it was a “huge payday for an indiscretion that would have been quickly forgotten, one among many in the professional wrestler’s personal life.”
“The enormous size of the verdict is chilling to Gawker Media and other publishers with a tabloid streak, but it is also a flag to higher courts that this case went wildly off the rails,” Denton said, going on to defend the Web site’s contention that the case was a key battle in protecting media’s First Amendment rights. “The plaintiff’s lawyers, with the occasional assist from our witnesses, successfully painted Gawker as representative of an untrammeled Internet that good and decent people should find frightening and distasteful. Emotion was permitted to trump the law, and key evidence and witnesses were kept from the jury.”
The executive laid out his lawyers’ much-repeated allegation that the St. Petersburg jury failed to hear key evidence and pointed to the fact that a state appeals court and federal judge both sided with Gawker and ruled against Bollea. (However, neither of those were jury trials.)
He noted that the judges in those courts agreed with Gawker on the public’s fascination with sex tapes, which he claimed justified the newsworthy quality of the tape. Vowing to appeal the St. Petersburg jury’s ruling, Denton said the whole case was waged against his company, not to “recover damages from emotional distress,” but to hide “racist language” found on another unpublished tape that threatened his career. He said the jury was never privy to evidence proving this, but last summer, excerpts of Bollea’s racist rant were uncovered by The National Enquirer.
Any juror with a television or Internet connection could easily have learned about that, though, and the fallout that ensued for Bollea. Denton didn’t address that fact in his memo, but he claimed that Bollea knew he was being filmed and alleged that documents released by the appellate court — which were never seen by the jury — prove that.
“So constitutional issues aside, we now know that the trial was a sham from the start,” Denton said. “There is a reason why judges typically hew to the First Amendment and protect free speech from the censorious impulses of juries. It is specifically designed to protect minority opinion from majority outrage. Freedom of expression will always be more popular in principle than in practice. We want to be free to express ourselves, but are less enthusiastic when that freedom is exercised by others with whom we disagree. Nobody likes a critic.”
The media executive’s lengthy blog post characterizes how Bollea’s attorneys vilified his company to the jury, casting Gawker editors in the role of “deviant” bloggers peddling “Internet pornography” as their client was a victim.
He also noted that since Gawker published the clip in 2012, the world has “changed” and the celebrity sex tapes now seem like “artifacts from an earlier and more licentious Internet era.”
Denton, who referred to Bollea as “Hogan” throughout his post, offered that the case has become “even more newsworthy” in light of recent events.
He wound down his post offering: “Celebrities, especially ones as public about their personal and sex life as Hulk Hogan, have a narrower zone of privacy than ordinary people. Regardless of questions about Gawker’s editorial standards and methods, self-promoters should not be allowed to seek attention around a specific topic and then claim privacy when the narrative takes an unwelcome turn. The benefits of publicity come at a price; and for someone like Hogan, whose whole life is a performance, it’s a full-time and long-term commitment….Celebrities should not be surprised when their credibility is questioned, and journalists attempt to sort out what is real and what is fake. That’s our job, and we intend to pursue it both in the courts and on the page.”