Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker Sex Tape Trial Nears Verdict

The case could be a landmark for what is protected by the First Amendment.

By Jared Leone

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Reuters) - Lawyers for Hulk Hogan urged a Florida jury on Friday to hit the website Gawker with tens of millions of dollars in damages for posting a sex tape featuring the former professional wrestler.

Attorney Kenneth Turkel told a six-member jury that Gawker's editors did not have the "common decency" to call Hogan for comment before uploading the video.

"What's disturbing about Gawker isn't what they do in a vacuum," Turkel said at the close of a two-week civil trial in state court in St. Petersburg. "It's how proud they are of it."

But Michael Sullivan, a lawyer for the gossip and news website, said the First Amendment protects the media's ability to publish legitimate news stories, even when the content is objectionable.

"If they can make a claim like this, the Internet as we know it will cease to exist," Sullivan said.

The case essentially hinges on whether jurors believe the sex tape was newsworthy, and requires them to weigh a celebrity's right to privacy in the digital age against the freedom of the press.

The jury began deliberating shortly after 1 p.m. local time.

Hogan, 62, testified during the trial that the video's release in 2012 caused him lasting humiliation. The longtime star of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc and reality television veteran sued for $100 million in damages.

The video showed Hogan having sex with the wife of his then-best friend, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, said he did not know the encounter was caught on camera about a decade ago inside Bubba's home.

Gawker obtained the tape and created an edited version less than two minutes long that contained only nine seconds of explicit sexual activity. The editor involved said the post was intended as a commentary on celebrity sex tapes.

Sullivan argued that Hogan made his sex life newsworthy by repeatedly discussing it in public, often in graphic detail. He said other sites had already written about the tape, though none posted any video.

But Hogan sought to distinguish his real-life persona from the bombastic wrestling character he said he portrayed with "artistic liberty." His public behavior, he said, should not rob him of the privacy he expected while in the bedroom of a friend's house.

Gawker said it did not make money directly off the post, which ran without advertisements. Experts for Hogan said the company netted substantial gains from the traffic it generated.

(Writing by Letitia Stein and Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Bernadette Baum and Jeffrey Benkoe)