Hulk Hogan takes on Gawker in Florida sex tape trial

Wrestler Hulk Hogan is asking a Florida jury to slam the gossip website Gawker for publishing a secretly recorded sex tape him in an unusual trial weighing a celebrity's privacy rights.
Wrestler Hulk Hogan is asking a Florida jury to slam the gossip website Gawker for publishing a secretly recorded sex tape him in an unusual trial weighing a celebrity's privacy rights.PHOTO: REUTERS

FLORIDA (REUTERS) - A lawyer for Hulk Hogan said editors of the Gawker website intended to harm the former professional wrestler when they posted an excerpt of a secretly recorded video of him engaged in an intimate sex act.

The online gossip site was motivated by power and brand promotion at Hogan's expense, lawyer Shane Vogt told jurors in Florida at the start of an unusual civil trial weighing a celebrity's privacy rights.

"They (Gawker) have essentially replaced sticks and stones with clicks and phones," Vogt said during his opening statement, noting that 2.5 million people had viewed the sex-tape clip during the six months it remained online.

Hogan, 62, is seeking US$100 million (S$138 million) in damages from Gawker for posting the nearly two-minute video of him having sex with the former wife of his then-best friend, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge.

Attorneys for the longtime champion of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and reality TV star say he had a right to expect privacy in a private bedroom and the video was filmed without his knowledge.

Gawker argues that its 2012 post is protected free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and contends it was reporting on a celebrity who has publicly discussed his sex life.

Gawker's founder, Nick Denton, sat in the front row of the courtroom along with a former editor involved in the posting, AJ Daurlieo. "That is a high-stakes proposition, not just for Gawker, who is right now in the crosshairs, but for all of the people who exercise First Amendment rights," Seth Berlin, an attorney representing Gawker, said ahead of the trial.

A loss could put Gawker out of business, though the website will appeal an unfavourable verdict, he said.

Hogan, wearing one of his signature bandanas, is expected to be the first witness to take the stand during the trial in St Petersburg, located in the same county where he lives.

He will go by his legal name, Terry Bollea, for the court proceedings. He will acknowledge that he made mistakes, including the extramarital affair, Vogt said. "He is also going to tell you in his own words that there is still a private side of his life that exists in very few but very important places," Vogt said.