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How will Hulk Hogan Gawker verdict affect how media reports in the future?

Hulk Hogan Gawker verdict
How one jury verdict may have profound influence on how media reports going forward. Pictured Hulk Hogan and Heather Cole.
Hulk Hogan Gawker verdict
How one jury verdict may have profound influence on how media reports going forward. Pictured Hulk Hogan and Heather Cole.

Hulk Hogan Gawker verdict: How will media report on celebrity and news in the future & the dilemma of the public’s right to know vs the right to privacy. Has the freedom of the press been bludgeoned?

Friday’s Hulk Hogan Gawker verdict contrary to what many have argued or suggested has had a profound affect on the media and public’s discussion of what constitutes newsworthy reporting and the right of the public’s need to know vs that of the rights of said subject’s right to privacy.

The verdict, whether we agreed with it or not has forced a wider debate as to the morality and legal and ethical regards of how journalists, editors and publishers must going forward be expected to behave and what they are allowed to publish.

Thoughts and issues that profoundly affect a society’s notion of freedom of speech, free will vs one’s moral sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate- an area which is indeed very slippery and portends many conundrums in a free society.

The case itself pitted the idea of free speech vs a celebrity, in this case Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea)  who argued that Gawker media by pulishing sections of a secretly recorded sex tape (that he did not know about behind his back) was an invasion of his privacy and merited economic and emotional jury. A point of view that a St Peterburg, Florida jury agreed with in deciding to issue a $115 million verdict.

That’s $15 million more than Hogan had sued for, which ought to make us wonder. But there is more in store with a punitive decision to come next week which will almost certain force Gawker Media which employs 250 people over a variety of media stables to go out of business, despite their intentions to appeal. Assuming they don’t go broke whilst appealing or be forced to pay off Hogan the minimum amount of $50m as Florida law requires.

Although one may regard publishing the video was tasteless on their part, Gawker maintained that free speech mandates that the role of the press is that it be allowed to publish anything that it considers newsworthy and of public interest. Key word: ‘what it, as an arbitrary member of the press, decides is free game.’

So let’s ask the question- is publishing a section of a sex tape newsworthy? In what way does it inform and benefit society to have the tape run? Why then have so many sex tapes come to be released in the past? Surely they weren’t that particularly newsworthy save for their salacious appeal (does that constitute newsworthiness?) and the subject matter’s willingness to let the tape sit (yes Kim Kardashian all eyes are on you, yet again).

Is is now the duty of the courts, judges and juries to decide what constitutes news which is newsworthy? Wasn’t that always up to publishes and editors, who have traditionally been afforded by courts (under tort law) the right to report on the actions of public figures, given the expectation that a public figure reneges on their rights of privacy by virtue of having become a public figure. What if they didn’t seek becoming a public figure?

Or should we wonder as a society we have decided to push back and insist that it wants its press to have limits as to how far it can go and hold them legally accountable if they transgress?

Assume we agree that Hulk Hogan’s privacy rights were transgressed how do we then award him a fine of $115m (and there could be more to come with punitive damages to be announced next week) and not wonder how wrongly convicted people who spend years in jail and are then only released at best can ever expect to see retribution in the small millions?

How is that one’s moral compass when offended is now garnering more of a payday then the loss of life, liberty, criminalization of members of society or simply the rationale that someone’s rights beyond (ie their freedom for instance) is violated?

Since when do we award such fines for the disgust of having said or expressed something that many can agree or not agree to be rude or vulgar or gratuitous? (that said releasing images of two people engaging in carnal pleasures despite their protests would arguably constitute the bottom of the barrel in good taste and over excess).

Right verdict? Hulk Hogan beats Gawker: Wins $115m

Hulk Hogan trial: Was Gawker Media playing God?

Did Heather Cole know she was being filmed?

Hulk Hogan trial: ‘I don’t have a ten inch penis’

Hulk Hogan fired over ‘fxcking nigger’ rant

Oh really? Hulk Hogan tweets pictures of his daughter Brooke’s legs and ass.

Hulk Hogan to sue Gawker for $100 million for leaking sex tape.

NSFW: And finally here is the Hulk Hogan sex tape you promised yourself you would never watch.

Breaking: Hulk Hogan shopping new sex video or was he set up?

The verdict on many levels is disturbing because it forces a wider consideration as to what press can publish, what videos or images it may choose or not be allowed to run in the future? And who then gets to decide that and should editors and media outlets be under constant trepidation and be forced rein in their stories for fear of unleashing  a lawsuit because someone’s sense of decorum and moral outrage was invoked?

Reflects Samantha Barbas, a law professor at the University at Buffalo whose research focuses on the intersection of the First Amendment, media and privacy, via a report via the nytimes:

‘The verdict could have a profound impact on privacy rights and also free press rights in the United States.’

‘For a jury to say that a celebrity has a right to privacy that outweighs the public’s ‘right to know, and that a celebrity sex tape is not newsworthy, represents a real shift in American free press law.’

Agreed Gawker might have reveled in their unbridled right to publish anything and everything as it deemed and is known for doing so unabashedly (and that may in part be the public’s disgust with Gawker), with the public pulling back and insisting that in fact it be required to measure the consequences of its actions and whether it transgresses on the privacy rights of their subjects (where do we draw the line, will journalists no longer be able to depict images or video relating to issues of criminal behavior?).

Which is to say the public does in fact very much care about its celebrities and wishes for them to also be considered as private citizens with rights to privacy. Ironic in a society obsessed with every minute aspect relating to a celebrity- presumably going forward at the sole discretion of publicists ‘ok to go and publish‘ and the celebrities themselves.

Gawker may have insisted that Hulk Hogan forfeited his right to privacy by being a public figure, but in turn a jury insisted that the media must also going forward bear in mind the privacy of said public figure and that not every action constitutes fair game, irrespective of how famous said subject matter are. 

Reflected one commentator:

‘Most important, however, was that a jury decided that when it comes to privacy, there are some things that should apply to everyone, no matter how famous they are.’

The belief that what two people do behind closed doors is not for some website to show the world, just because one of them is famous.’

A new awareness that has cost one independent media outlet its possibility to economically survive going forward. Something sadly many have come to applaud.

What else will they applaud in the future when it comes to the rights of journalists and a society being able to feel secure that they can still report and not feel threatened by sanctions? Sex tapes today. But who knows what else may be off limits in the future and that is the real concern we should pay attention to if we insist on living in a free society…..