Grappling With Gawker: Hulk Hogan Trial Day One
In 2007, Terry Bollea (better known as Hulk Hogan) would have sex with the wife of his best friend, Bubba The Love Sponge. Unbeknownst to Hogan, the sex act was recorded with a hidden camera. The video was leaked and anonymously sold to Gawker Media and released at gawker.com in 2012. In a sleepy courtroom outside of Tampa, on March 7th, 2016, Hulk Hogan would compete in a match against Gawker's creator, president, and writer of the article that contained the portion of the sex tape.
The court room itself was wide and high, with green and white granite walls reaching into the sky, broken up by swaths of wood. It gave the impression of a bank mixed with a ski lodge. Judge Pamela Campbell explains the rules and guidelines to the jury. Her voice is vaguely robotic, speeding through advice on note taking before introducing Terry Bollea’s five claims against Gawker:
Invasion of privacy based upon the publication of private facts
Invasion of privacy based on intrusion upon seclusion
Invasion of privacy based on misappropriation of the right of publicity
Intentional infliction of emotional distress
Violation of Florida Security Of Communications Act
The defendants argue that their posting of the Hogan sex tape was protected by the First Amendment because it related to a matter of public concern. Gawker also denies using the plaintiff's name or likeness for commercial or advertising purposes. They maintain that Mr. Bollea did not suffer any emotional distress, and that the sex tape video was posted on their website in good faith that their behavior was lawful.
After the judge goes through nearly twenty minutes of what is to be expected from the jury and attorneys, Hulk Hogan’s lawyer, Shane Vogt, makes his opening statement.
Prosecution’s Opening Statement
Vogt is an imposing man. His height and build is not far away from that of Hulk Hogan himself. His head and face are hairless, giving a bright and youthful appearance. His peaked eyebrows and pointy nose make him look like a shark. His expertise is in business litigation, one of only 25 lawyer in the Tampa area with that background. In his youth, Vogt was a talented basketball player, winning multiple regional and national awards. He still stands on the balls of his feet, as if he is anticipating the need to grab a rebound any second.
His client, Terry Bollea, for six months stood naked and exposed on Gawker.com. In those six months, over five million people would see Mr. Bollea naked and exposed. But the video did not stay contained to Gawker. As it went viral, it would pop up on websites such as hardsextube.com, deviantclip.com, slutload.com, and many more. Without knowledge or consent, Bollea stood naked for the world to see for 203 days, as a direct result of Gawker's actions.
Vogt’s voice is measured and deliberate, only briefly raising to make a point. At times, he leaves the stand to point to graphs and screens in front of the jury. His right hand regularly knocks on the podium, almost acting as an exclamation point to his sentences. Vogt’s verbiage repeats that the sex tape, as admitted by Gawker creator Nick Denton himself, was pornographic and offensive. Denton believes he is “leveling the playing field”, according to Vogt, by taking down entertainers and sports stars. The longer Cook’s statement goes, the more he uses Gawker’s own words against them. In addition to Denton, A.J. Daulerio, the original writer of the Hogan sex tape article, is quoted as saying the “internet has made it easier for all of us to become shameless voyeurs and deviants. We love to watch famous people have sex because it is something we’re not supposed to see”.
Perhaps inspired by Johnny Cochran, Vogt claims that “sticks and stones have been replaced by clicks and phones”. This is, after-all, a performance as much as it is about justice. The Judge interrupts him, asking Vogt to speak up. She’s having trouble hearing. He tips the microphone closer to him, but actually speaks softer than before.
Vogt plays clips of a media interview with Denton. During this, he calmly drinks water, letting Nick Denton’s words speak for themselves. The interview has Denton admitting to breaking all the rules of journalism, and sometimes, even being mean in their publishing. All in the name of “truth”. The tape states that Denton would pay bloggers $12 per post, adding that nothing was off limits. Denton, in fact, believed that Gawker should be offensive.
Vogt introduces the jury (and viewers) to the rest of his team. He makes the distinction between Hulk Hogan and Terry Bollea, something that will be expanded upon in the next few days. From here, he goes on to describe what Bollea will tell the jury, beginning with a brief biography of Bollea, covering his early days of wrestling, his marriage and life as a father, his reality show, and his relationship with Bubba The Love Sponge. Having established the lack of integrity of Gawker, and the emotional damage suffered by Bollea, Vogt ends his statement.
Defense’s Opening Statement
Gawker’s lawyer, Mike Berry, steps up to the podium. He’s a tall man with a broad, yet pointy face. His suit is blue, his blazer unbuttoned and flapping. Berry has over a decade of experience in matters regarding the First Amendment rights of the media. For a time, he worked for the Republican Senator Paul D. Coverdell on Capitol Hill. His folksy drawl comes out from time to time, and in general he seems to have a bright demeanor. He introduces the Gawker team before speaking about himself. Intermittently placing his hands on his hips and shaking his head, Berry tells the story of having to leave his two young children behind for an extended period to participate in this trial. His kids asked him why it was such an important case that their father had to leave them for so long. He has a different answer for each child. To his son, he talked about it being the case of a famous wrestler he looked up to as a boy. To his daughter, the trial was about online privacy. Vogt calls the first objection of the trial.
Berry resumes right where he left off, explaining he could not share the details of the case with his children, but he could with the jury. Berry introduces the jury to his clients, Gawker founder Nick Denton, Gawker writer A.J. Daulerio, and Gawker general council Heather Dietrick. Berry’s hands do much of his talking for him, while his voice at times sounds like a child speaking in public for the first time. His right hand often forms a fist with the thumb outstretched on his index finger, a gesture generally reserved for politicians. Berry explains how Gawker came to be in possession of the sex tape: A talent manager in New York had received the video anonymously, then forwarded it to Gawker. Berry changes subjects, wistfully reminiscing on being a young child in Georgia and Alabama during the time period when Hulkamania was truly running wild. At no point does Mr. Berry refer to Terry Bollea, instead talking about Hulk Hogan the character as the real person. Berry states that Hulk Hogan has shared intimate details of his life over the decades as a public star. Bollea’s ex-wife’s book is mentioned, with a passage about her claims of Bollea’s infidelities during their marriage being brought to the attention of the jury.
Berry then switches gears, acknowledging Bollea’s interview about the existence of the sex tape on TMZ months before Gawker released it was done in character as Hulk Hogan. He immediately returns to referring to Hogan instead of Bollea. Months of coverage and speculation about the tape led A.J. Daulerio to write a commentary on the topic, something he felt was “comical”. A.J. Daulerio found humor in the sex tape being not of a beautiful starlet like Paris Hilton, Pam Anderson, or Kim Kardashian, but of an aging Hulk Hogan having ordinary, if not boring, sex.
“Gawker did not post the Hulk Hogan sex tape”, Berry says. He argues that A.J. Daulerio chopped up the 30 minute DVD to show just as much as was needed for his commentary, as the tape was in poor quality and did not feature close ups or HD video like other celebrity sex tapes. A.J. Daulerio, in fact, wanted a highlight reel of the ordinary and unglamorous nature of the tape, which he would use to underscore the theme of his article. In the end, the footage was edited down to under two minutes, nine seconds of which had sex, the rest of the time being devoted to a conversation between Bollea and Heather Clem. Berry asks the jury to watch the tape multiple times over the next few weeks.
Mr. Berry then delves into the personal life of Nick Denton, pointing out Denton’s background as an Englishman with a Jewish mother who escaped both the Nazis and Soviets means he knows first hand what happens when free speech is suppressed. Mr. Denton believes himself and the public to not be beholden to the “elites”, and his websites provide the unvarnished truth. Including celebrity sex tapes. Hulk Hogan had spent decades portraying himself as a role model to children, and later in life, to be a faithful husband. As the tape provided to Gawker proved, this was not the case, and they believed the public had a right to know.
Heather Clem Testimony
The first person called to the stand is not Terry Bollea, but his partner in the sex tape, Heather Clem, now ex-wife of radio host Bubba The Love Sponge. As with many of the testimonies in this case, it was filmed prior to the trial. Technical issues arise immediately. The audio is blown out and jumbled and has to be restarted. This is not the first time there have been technical issues on the day. Heather speaks about her relationship with Bubba The Love Sponge, describing him as charismatic and cunning. With much deliberation, she classified her marriage with Bubba as an open relationship. Although the visual aspect of the testimony is not seen in the video being broadcast to the internet, Heather sounds very emotional and conflicted about her ex-husband. Her words are delayed, and there is a thick blanket of hesitation in the air. She becomes choked up speaking about Bubba’s intimidating behavior, bullying her into doing what he wanted.
On the advice of Bubba’s attorney, a security camera had been placed in their bedroom. This was done in the event that something ever happened, such as a theft of valuables kept in the room. The house had also been equipped with multiple external security cameras. The bedroom camera had been installed not by a security company, but by a member of Bubba's radio show crew. This was not unusual, Heather says, as members of his staff would often do small tasks around the house Bubba asked. She was not aware if the existence of the camera was known to anyone else, and she herself did not know how to operate it.
When the lawsuit between Bollea and Bubba was ongoing, Heather recounted Bubba on the radio making disparaging remarks about Bollea. She was not sure how much of it was true, as she could not always tell when her husband was being truthful. This applied off air as well. His life, much like Bollea’s, seemed to be a blend of character and reality at all times. It was hard for her to tell which Bubba she was interacting with on any given day, and the person she was living with seemed to change back and forth without notice.
The questioning then turned to Heather Clem’s sexual relationship with Bollea. The situation had been her husband's idea, and she had agreed to engage in the relationship with Hulk. She had not been made aware if Bollea had been informed that one of their acts had been recorded. She also had no knowledge of who released the footage, nor was she in any way involved in the distribution of it.
Hulk Hogan Takes The Stand
Without entrance music, without pyro, without the red and yellow, Terry Bollea takes the stand. Time has caught up with the man once known as “Immortal”. His famously tanned skin is a more normal shade, with deep crack marks and wrinkles, and saggy, tired eyes making him resemble a basset hound. His shoulders are hunched over as he folds his hands above his lap. He’s wearing all black, a t-shirt underneath a blazer, and a bandana that he was granted special permission from the court to wear. Around his neck is a crucifix necklace that hangs nearly to the bottom of his sternum. On his left wrist is a large time piece. He looks weary and humble, and his voice is far softer than his more familiar snarl from the wrestling interviews he is so well known for.
Vogt begins his questioning by asking Bollea his childhood. Bollea was a large, but overweight boy, and had an interest in music instead of athletics. His childhood had been average, and a smile came across his face when speaking of his brother, who died in 1986. Before breaking into wrestling, Bollea would spend his time in bands, doing labor work, and working on the docks to make ends meet. After following various wrestlers around Florida, he was finally invited to train. On the first day, famous Japanese wrestler and trainer Hiro Matsuda broke Bollea’s leg. Bollea would return once his leg healed and continued his training. Speaking on modern pro wrestling training, he says, “Nowadays, you can get a pair of wrestling boots from Santa Claus, and then you can go to wrestling school and get paid to wrestle.” He seems to still be honored that Matsuda would later become his mentor in Japan.
Bollea continues to speak with tinges of both reverence and embarrassment on the dark, smoky days of territory wrestling. Over the course of his testimony, he’s asked to define multiple wrestling terms, including kayfabe (overall code to protect the secrets of pro wrestling), heel (bad guy), and face (good guy). The destructive nature of the business is made clear with the list of injuries received in over a quarter of a century in the ring: Two knee replacements, two hip replacements, nine back surgeries, permanent vision damage, among others.
Bollea is a bit prone to rambling, eventually answering questions, but often needing to be slightly redirected. He first received the Hulk Hogan moniker in the WWWF (now known as WWE), with the intention of being an Irish character. Hogan reveals with a wry smile that he was never from Venice Beach, California. While in the WWWF, his career ascended to the next level, moving from school gyms and VFW halls to the Philadelphia Spectrum and Madison Square Garden. His role as Thunderlips in Rocky III would catapult him to the top of the renamed WWF and helped pro wrestling transition from “sport” to “sports entertainment.
This allows Bollea to break down the ethos of the Hulk Hogan character, including dropping lines from his entrance theme. He seems both slightly embarrassed of the Hogan character and what it has meant to his generations of fans, but thankful that he's had the support of those fans for so long. The judge calls for a comfort break, hoping to fix some of the seemingly frequent technology issues. One might get the impression that Vogt is actually just a fan enjoying getting to talk to Hulk Hogan about pro wrestling this whole time, but all the wrestling talk has served the purpose of differentiating the man and character.
Bollea would reveal that, unlike the character Hulk Hogan, he was a man with a myriad of self-esteem issues, stemming from bullying in his childhood, and in his adult life from verbal abuse at the hands of his ex-wife. In particular, he’s quite embarrassed of his large head, which appears to be getting larger and larger as his hairline gets lower and lower. Despite his success and long term career in the wrestling business, he left it with few friends. Within minutes, the entire mythology of Hulk Hogan has been shattered. The real man is not an American hero who fights for the rights of every man, trains, says his prayers, and eats his vitamins. The real man does not puff his chest out and growl about saving the earth by backstroking in the ocean. The real man is a sad one, broken emotionally and physically, worried about his age and bald head.
Vogt pivots into the subject of how Bollea met Bubba The Love Sponge. At the time, ironically, Bollea could not discern between the character and the man, but the two became close friends after Bollea understood that Bubba Clem was portraying a character on his radio show. Bollea's realization came when he saw Bubba interacting with veterans and special needs children at a charity event. The two began training together, with Bubba shedding half of his body-weight over the course of seven years. They were so close that Bubba was at Bollea's father's side when he died. At the same time, Bollea’s marriage was falling apart. As a latch ditch effort to save it, the Bollea family starred the VH1 reality show Hogan Knows Best. The show was scripted and done in character, but the reality of the dysfunctional marriage was evident to viewers and crew members. It was during this time frame that Bubba and Heather began propositioning Bollea to have a sexual relationship with Heather.
Bollea was startled and uncomfortable with the proposition, but after persistent effort from the Clems (it had lasted nearly two years), and after it was made clear that Linda would not be returning to the marriage, Terry Bollea cracked. At his lowest point, after losing his wife, his TV show, his wrestling career, and possibly his children, he went to the Clem residence. In his words, it was the only place he felt safe at the time. He describes entering the house and being enveloped in something like a group hug. Heather took Bollea by the hand and led him to the bedroom. Bubba handed Bollea a condom. Bollea, feeling something was off with the situation, asked if it was being taped. Bubba became furious at the accusation, offended that Bollea would even ask such a question. Bollea went through with the act as Bubba went to his office.
Five years later, the existence of the tape came to light publicly. Bollea, as Hulk Hogan, was doing press for TNA Wrestling, a “very small promotion” he was working for at the time. Much of the media tour, which was supposed to promote the upcoming Bound For Glory pay per view event, centered on questions about the sex tape. At the time, Bollea did an interview with TMZ and his personal lawyer, David Houston, addressing the rumors and content of the tape. It was in character as Hulk Hogan. It was played for the court.
Graphic clips from Bollea’s appearance on the Howard Stern Show from the same time frame are played. The audio is uncensored, and features Stern talking about Heather “screaming for your big cock” and Bollea saying the sex would have been more vigorous if it had been with a woman other than the wife of his friend (Howard’s sidekick, Robin, describes it as “draining the pipes”). Bollea again explains the inner workings of the entertainment business, this time about how important the Howard Stern show is to the rest of the radio interview media swings, and how it is an entertainment show first and foremost. While listening to the clips of himself, Bollea bristled multiple times, fidgeting with his fingers, and having a look on his that seemed to ask for forgiveness.
When it was confirmed to him that Bubba had been on the secretly recorded tape speaking about the money that could be made from it, Bollea shook with anger. His best friends had betrayed him. The Clems were all he had left at that point in his life, and they were the only people he thought he could trust. With a heavy sigh, Bollea begins talking about the emotional damage the tape has caused him. Within seconds, the defense requests to approach the bench. Bollea tugs at his bandana and folds his hands in front of his face, giving the appearance of praying. The defense had an issue with Bollea speaking about his family’s reactions to the tape. Bollea was redirected to speak only of his feelings on his family's emotional well being. He had just reaffirmed his love of Christ, entered into a new marriage, and felt like he had finally cleaned up his life. The release of the tape seemed to put all that in jeopardy. The defense again objects, hoping for a standing objection to this line of testimony. Bollea throws up his hands, asking if he can speak. The court overrules the objection. The prosecution has no further questions.
Hulk Hogan Cross Examination
Gawker lawyer Michael J. Sullivan is a slight man, appearing to be in his mid 50s, with graying hair, thin glasses, and a delicate, somewhat high pitched voice. He’s wearing a bright blue and orange swirled tie, representing his New York roots. He seems to have multiple verbal tics, acknowledging Bollea’s responses with, “okay”, “alright”, and “fair enough”. He has an avian quality to him. He asks Bollea multiple times, in multiple ways, if he knew Bubba Clem well. Bollea answers affirmatively each time. The former pro wrestler and body builder frequently shifts in his chair, unable to find a comfortable resting spot for his still large arms. He seems somewhat bemused by the repeated questions, but answers them faithfully. As Sullivan asks about Bollea’s many appearances on the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show, Bollea has to remind him that they were done in character as Hulk Hogan.
At the time the grainy stills from the sex tape had leaked, Bollea had remained friends with Bubba. Bubba had denied any involvement and Bollea chose to believe him. Sullivan, in the course of a minute and a half, asks ten different times if Bubba lied to Bollea about recording the sex act. Bollea affirms the answer each time, his annoyance starting to show as he looks to his council. As it seems Sullivan is about to move on, he asks the question three more times. He then asks Bollea about statements in a deposition about security cameras in the Clem residence. Bollea was unsure on if it was a question or a statement, and he recalled what he had said in the deposition on the subject. Sullivan apologizes for confusing him.
Bollea was specifically speaking about not knowing of the existence of a security camera in the bedroom, while Sullivan seemed to be speaking of the external security cameras, which Hogan was aware of. The issue is cleared up when Hogan is presented with binders of depositions that he could read along with. When asked about the Busted Open wrestling radio show, Bollea could not remember doing it. In the Sirius building, he would do many shows in a row, and he had done multiple interviews that same day. Audio clips of the show played for the court have Bollea stating he knew Bubba had security cameras in the household, but not in the bedroom. A clip from a second show has Bollea making similar statements. With more questions being repeated, Bollea’s fingers start tapping the wood in front of him, and he moves to adjust his watch. More clips are played, and more variations of “did you know he had security cameras” are asked. Bollea seems confused as to why the question is still being asked when he’s answered it half a dozen times.
Bollea leans back in his seat and checks his watch when the prosecution approaches the bench after he was asked to read parts of his deposition from two years prior. Bollea is clearly losing his patience with his time on the stand, which has now been over two hours. It was established in the deposition that Bollea had not seen the video Gawker had posted online. A video clip from Sway in the Morning had Bollea (as Hogan) saying he had seen about a minute of the video. Bollea says he was not being truthful to Sway’s audience when he said that, claiming he was on autopilot that day and he does not know why he said that. A clip from a VH1 show the same day has Bollea saying he watched the entire Gawker clip. He again was not truthful, saying he was in Hulk Hogan mode trying to get through interviews on the day he learned of Bubba’s betrayal.
Mr. Sullivan pointedly asks if being in Hulk Hogan mode means that telling the truth does not apply. Bollea explains that Hulk Hogan makes outrageous statements, such as stories about surfing on tiger sharks and body slamming Moby Dick. Hulk Hogan gives Bollea artistic liberty to be a character. Bollea again explains that when doing press, he’s in character as Hulk Hogan. He was not a guest on those shows as Terry Bollea.
More of Sullivan’s quirks become evident, as he starts nearly every question with “Now” and a pregnant pause as if searching for words, and the changing of topics is always referred to as shifting gears or shifting focus. Sullivan initially wanted to talk about Bubba’s radio tirades twelve days after the sex tape was released. An objection is called and Sullivan instead asks about how Bollea and Heather Clem’s physical relationship began. Bollea was aware of the Clem’s open relationship, something that Bubba spoke about publicly on his radio show. Bollea and Heather Clem did not have a personal relationship, despite the closeness of Bollea and Bubba. Before they slept together, they had only had a handful of interactions. After Bollea and Heather had sex a few times, the topic was never mentioned between the group again.
For a time after, Bollea lived with the Clem’s while going through his divorce with Linda. The sexual relationship between Bollea and Heather had ended, and the atmosphere in the house was described as “uncomfortable”. Bollea was worried that the Clems would bully him into resuming the sexual relationship. Instead, Heather was described as distant and avoided Bollea. Bollea is asked if Bubba had ever told him about recording his wife with other men, which garners a stern objection. The court breaks for the day immediately after.
Gawker’s legal team raises issues that they had planned on the trial wrapping up with in the week, and as such were worried that they would have nothing to talk about should the trail last longer than expected. The trial would resume tomorrow with continued cross-examination of Mr. Bollea.