jury of peers to decide

St. Petersburg – The $100 million Hulk Hogan sex video case, upon which all freedom of speech in the Internet Age is said to hang, appeared to take a sudden turn Thursday morning in the direction of making all celebrity sex videos fair game for the worldwide web.

An appeals court ruled that FBI files had to be unsealed and made public and these files were rumored to be so devastating they would destroy Hogan’s case against the gossip site he is suing, Gawker, for posting a video in 2012 of him having sex with the wife of his best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

He claims that posting the video, which was seen on by about 2.5 million people, was an invasion of privacy. Gawker claims Hogan (real name, Terry Bollea), has bragged about his penis size and sexual prowess so much in two books and numerous interviews, he has no privacy left to invade.

Before Thursday morning, the case, after almost two weeks in court, was winding down, at times droning on, to a conclusion. Closing arguments were expected Thursday afternoon. Then the FBI files bombshell landed.

In those FBI documents – which Hogan attorneys and Judge Pamela Campbell have fought vigorously to keep out of evidence – does Hogan admit he knew he was being videotaped when he was having sex with Bubba the Love Sponge Clem’s wife, Heather Clem?

In those FBI documents, are there more devastating Hogan comments that will be played to a jury, similar to his racial and homophobic slurs leaked last summer to the National Enquirer, after which he was summarily fired by World Wresting Entertainment, for whom he had been their biggest draw for two decades?

If the jury heard comments like that now, wouldn’t it be ruinous to Hogan’s credibility, not to mention any kind of sympathy he might have engendered with the 6-person panel over the last two weeks of often frighteningly coarse testimony?

Speculation in the third floor media room at the Pinellas County courthouse Thursday morning ran rampant when word broke that Judge Pamela Campbell had been overruled in the case – for the third time — along with a sense of pleasure, and relief, that the appeals court has smacked her around.

She needed it.

Believe me.

From the beginning the Jeb Bush appointee has thwarted efforts to cover the trial by keeping bench arguments out of hearing distance, and ruling that the jury would be shown the Hogan video (it never was, except for a brief outtake), but reporters would not be allowed to view it.

Campbell appeared shaken as she sat on the bench with it all unraveling around her.

The media was demanding that the clerk’s release the unsealed, now public files. Attorneys from both sides were gathered in front of her, evidently arguing – at times it appeared heatedly – but out of hearing distance, over what to do with those unsealed files.

Could these time bombs finally be allowed into evidence?

It was the last thing, judging by the expressions on their faces, that Hogan attorneys wanted. It was everything, judging by expressions, that Gawker attorneys had hoped and pleaded and motioned and prayed for – for months.

After a couple of hours of this, Campbell clicked the courtroom microphone back on and told the jury to go home for the day. Hogan attorneys filed a request for an “emergency stay” to prevent the FBI documents from being released to the press, despite the appeals’ court ruling.

Judge Campbell said the press had until 3 p.m. to argue against the request with the appeals court. The joy that had enlivened the media room, not always subtle, began to ebb as reporters on deadlines with sparse information tried to deduce what the hell was going on and file something.

This case, from the beginning, had no redeeming characters. It has been an exercise in how low the 1st Amendment must go to guarantee the rest of us freedom of speech. But couldn’t it be less bottom-feeding than having to watch an aging wrestler have sex with his best friend’s wife in a canopy bed?

Surely, the Founding Fathers weren’t thinking that?

On Tuesday, the founder of Gawker, Nick Denton, was asked on cross examination by a Hogan attorney to read excerpts from an “essay” that ran with the Hogan sex video when it was posted back in 2012.

It was pretty rank, descriptive stuff, explaining, for instance, how Heather Clem had performed a “slow, dutiful blowjob” on Hogan. Denton, who is English, read it devoid of emotion or inflection. Still, it came off as triple XXX Masterpiece Theater.

One juror put her hand to her mouth.

Hogan buried his head in his hands.

It was his finest moment in two weeks in the courtroom.

A few days earlier, a deposition was played of Gawker’s former editor in chief, A.J. Daulerio. He’s the one who wrote the “slow, dutiful blowjob” essay. He said, on questioning by a Hogan attorney that Gawker does, indeed, have editorial standards in regards to when a sex video is acceptable.

The Hogan attorney asked him what is the standard? Daulerio said no children sex videos. The attorney asked him what age children? How young? Where do you draw the line?

Daulerio answered: “4.”

Later, on the witness stand, Daulerio said he was being sarcastic, not serious. The Hogan attorney asked him: Were you joking about child pornography? He said no, he wasn’t joking about child pornography.

It just sounded like he was joking about child pornography.

Speculation among reporters Thursday morning was the FBI files could swing the verdict in Gawker’s favor. By late Thursday afternoon that speculation had become as pointless as trying to hear what the lawyers were talking about in the courtroom in front of Judge Campbell’s sounds-of-silence bench.

The court public information officer, Stephen Thompson, send out an email: “Journalists, Closing arguments are scheduled to begin tomorrow at 9 a.m.” In other words there would be no FBI files entered into evidence.

The jury likely will get the case late Friday and return a verdict next week. It will be reported that it’s either a crushing blow to freedom of the press, or the right to privacy has a new hero who wears a bandanna and is inordinately well-endowed.

No matter what the six members of the jury decide, you’ve have to know that they, like the rest of us, every last one of them, will be relieved that this belly crawl through the bowels of the 1st Amendment is finally.


Image: screen grab from Livestream.
Jeffry Scott

Jeffry Scott

Jeffry Scott is a former staff reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where, over the course of 24 years, he covered two of the biggest trials in the city's history -- the racketeering trial of former mayor Bill Campbell, and the trial of courthouse shooter, Brian Nichols -- and wrote features on travel, food, politics, movies, TV and advertising, and covered breaking news on the metro desk. He left the paper two years ago and is living, quite happily, in St. Petersburg, Fla., as a freelance writer.