ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hulk Hogan's attempted take down of the website Gawker over a secretly recorded sex tape began on Monday as lawyers asked a Florida jury to weigh privacy rights against public interest in a celebrity.
A lawyer for the former professional wrestler said the online gossip site's editors were motivated by power and brand promotion and intended to harm Hogan when they posted an excerpt of a video showing him engaged in an intimate sex act.
"They have essentially replaced sticks and stones with clicks and phones," lawyer Shane Vogt said during his opening statement, noting that 2.5 million people had viewed a clip of the sex-tape over six months.
Hogan, 62, is seeking $100 million in damages from Gawker for posting the nearly two-minute video of him having consensual sex with the wife of his then-best friend, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge.
Lawyers 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 speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and contends it was reporting on a celebrity who publicly discussed his sex life.
Gawker's founder, Nick Denton, sat in the front row of the courtroom along with a former editor involved, A.J. Daulerio.
"Gawker believes this kind of reporting is important," company attorney Mike Berry told jurors. "It is important for writers to be able to address uncomfortable subjects - whether the subject is mental health, whether the subject is drugs, whether the subject is celebrity sex tapes."
He said the company did not make money directly from the post, which was flagged so advertising did not appear with it.
A loss could put Gawker out of business, though the website will appeal an unfavorable verdict, another company attorney said.
Hogan, wearing one of his signature bandanas, is expected to be the first witness to take the stand during the civil trial in St. Petersburg, located in the same county where he lives.
Addressed in court by his legal name, Terry Bollea, he will acknowledge mistakes in the extramarital affair, Vogt said.
"There is still a private side of his life that exists in very few but very important places," Vogt said.