Hulk Hogan's $115 Million Win Against Gawker Raises Serious First Amendment Questions
from the the-appeal-should-be-interesting dept
Well, this isn’t necessarily a huge surprise, but Friday afternoon a Florida jury sided with Hulk Hogan in his lawsuit against Gawker, awarding him a fairly astounding $115 million (he had asked for $100 million) for posting a short clip of a Hogan sex tape along with an article about it. We hadn’t written about this case recently, as it was getting tons of press coverage elsewhere — but when we discussed it three years ago, when a Florida court first issued an injunction against Gawker, we noted the serious First Amendment issues here. Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) had originally sued in federal court where it was more or less laughed out of court, mostly on First Amendment grounds. However, he was able to try again in state court, where it’s astounding that it even went to trial in the first place.
Given how the trial played out, the jury result wasn’t much of a surprise. The judge limited Gawker’s defense options, blocking a few key ones, and even the judge (during jury selection) had expressed opinions that appeared to be distasteful of internet celebrity media coverage. On top of that, much of Hogan’s lawyers’ case was built around making Gawker, its owner Nick Denton, and the reporter who wrote the article, AJ Daulerio, look as… obnoxious as possible. It highlighted their snarkiness and dismissive attitudes. But none of that is illegal. Being a jerk is still quite legal. But given all that, it seemed pretty obvious how the jury would rule. Hogan was made to look sympathetic and Gawker was made to look obnoxious and snarky.
But… the First Amendment remains. It’s kind of insane, in the first place, that there even was a trial at all on the question of “how newsworthy” the tape was. Whether or not you or I think running the tape is appropriate, the fact remains that courts should never be determining if something is newsworthy. That’s not the role of the courts, and that’s part of the reason why the First Amendment is so clear in barring regulations that restrict freedom of expression or the freedom of the press. I’ve seen a bunch of people saying that this case isn’t that big a deal because the only thing it really restricts is publishing sex tapes, but it goes beyond that in several ways. First of all, that kind of thinking is dangerous in its own right. It’s the kind of thinking that wipes out the First Amendment because some people can come up with excuses for killing off just about any kind of content, as long as you say, “Well, that’s okay, it’s just shutting down content that is mean.” The issue with the First Amendment and free expression is that the whole reason we have it is to protect content we don’t like. Because someday someone’s not going to like something you said either.
But, still, to me the key thing is simply having a court tell a newspaper what is or is not “newsworthy.” As Scott Greenfield wrote in his post on the jury’s decision:
But that?s not the most serious problem this verdict creates. What this trial put at risk is the determination of what constitutes ?newsworthiness,? what is sufficiently worthy of protection under the free press clause of the First Amendment. On the one hand, it?s asked, ?why should the editorial decision of what is sufficiently newsworthy to be entitled to protection be left to the media?? On the other, the question is, ?what happens if newsworthiness is left to the sensibilities of 12 nice people from Tampa??
There is good reason to question why media gets to decide what constitutes newsworthiness. They?re not gods. They have no magic. There are vague journalistic ethics floating around, but they aren?t laws, and certainly aren?t hard and fast rules to which all media adheres. What gives them the right to decide?
The alternative is that newsworthiness is left to Ma and Pa Kettle to decide. While journalists have no magic, the Kettles have none either. So are we better off constraining your right to know by their feelings of ickiness? Would you really want disclosure of the Pentagon Papers decided by whether it offended some folks in Tampa that Daniel Ellsberg stole them? Should the scope of a free press be determined by guts of some yokels from the hinterlands?
Gawker, not surprisingly, has made it clear it will appeal, and it has a decent chance to succeed. Based on earlier rulings in this case, in which the higher courts have indicated they see Gawker’s move protected by the First Amendment, Gawker is probably at least somewhat confident that the jury’s award will get thrown out. I know that some activists had been pushing for Hogan to win, arguing that it would be a win for “privacy rights” — but this is woefully shortsighted. Media organizations get threatened all the time with bogus threats of anything from defamation claims to publicity rights to copyright and more, over coverage that people dislike. Adding the possibility of huge fines for violating someone’s privacy over reporting on stuff they’d prefer remain secret is going to put a serious burden on investigative reporting. It’s going to lead to a lot of lawsuits where the real focus is on trying to silence negative coverage, rather than for any legitimate purpose. The chilling effects of this may be massive.
Even if you dislike Gawker (and I know some people do, quite a lot) and even if you dislike their snark — and even if you are a strong believer in privacy, this ruling should be a major concern if you support free speech and the First Amendment.