Terry Bollea, also known as Hulk Hogan, recently won one of the biggest wrestling matches of his career last week when he walked away from a trial against entertainment news website Gawker $140 million dollars richer. Just two weeks ago a Florida jury awarded Hogan $115 million and another $25 million in punitive damages determining that the balance between press freedom and privacy weighed in favored of Mr. Bollea’s rights.
What did Gawker even do that would warrant such a reward? Well Hulk Hogan has a sex tape. In fact, he produced a sex tape with the wife of friend, probably former friend, Bubba the Love Sponge, a radio personality based out of Tampa, Florida. This video was then made available on the Internet when Gawker Media published it in late 2012.
Despite the historical deference given to media in First Amendment types of cases, this recent case demonstrates a shift in the attitude toward media and the ways in which privacy can be compromised in the name of free speech.
“Once the case got to trial, and Gawker met a state court jury, Hogan was able to exploit the overwhelming unpopularity of the news media to his advantage. ‘Do you think the media can do whatever they want?’ asked Hogan’s attorney Ken Turkel in closing arguments.”
Reports now demonstrate that the public has become less trusting of media sources and it is obvious from Mr. Bollea’s case. In the age of social media sharing and voluntarily giving up information, picutes, videos, and thoughts to third parties, the public still very much respects their private information and values safeguarding these privacy rights apparently at $140 million dollars. After all “every day, we see examples of otherwise private people who are held up for embarrassment, public shaming or ridicule, when a confidential comment or personal information is broadcast around the world (many of Gawker’s targets over the years have been far less famous and far less eager for attention than Mr. Hogan).”
In a similar suit, New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has sued a hospital, ESPN and its correspondent Adam Schefter for tweeting out a photo of his medical records after Mr. Pierre-Paul severely injured himself after lighting fireworks in Miami. Schefter claims it was a valid move because “to provide incontrovertible proof of Pierre-Paul’s amputation, but given that he is the biggest and most trusted NFL reporter, almost nobody would’ve questioned him if he’d simply reported that Pierre-Paul’s index finger had been amputated.” Even though the complaint acknowledges that “the amputation may have been of legitimate public concern” but, should this always be the standard when individual privacy rights are at stake? Especially when considering the sensitive nature of medical records? Does anyone have a right to go to the hospital, obtain an individual’s records, and then publish them in the name of free speech? In this context, it seems even scarier because when you remove a public figure from the hypothetical, the consequences of enabling this practice hit closer to home for a regular citizen.
“When celebrities and others do sue, the Hogan case may provide another signal of what’s to come.” It seems as though the jury in Mr. Bollea’s case recognized this and awarded him not based on his celebrity status but because of this distrust of the media, its overarching reach, its invasive nature and influence, and the fear that an individual’s privacy rights do not mean anything in an continually open and accessible digital age. This case becomes less about the spectacle of Hulk Hogan and another sex tape performance when it is viewed as a case that tries to hold onto control of an individual’s privacy rights in a time when over sharing across social media platforms is almost expected.