The magnitude of Hogan’s $100 million damage claim could have a serious chilling effect on all media who report on public figures and their lifestyles. — Len Niehoff (3-16-16)
Will there be a chilling effect on journalists? I hope not. I guess editors will have to address that. — Erwin Chemerinsky (3-21-16)
Recently, a Florida jury rendered a $115 million verdict (YouTube video here) against Gawker, this in connection with a 2012 posting of a snippet of a video of Hulk Hogan (Terry G. Bollea) having sex with a friend’s wife. Subsequently, that jury awarded an additional $25.1 million in punitive damages. Gawker has said it will appeal.
The controversy arouse when Gawker posted a 13-year old secretly recorded sex video involving Mr. Hogan. He sued and prevailed on a claims of invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and economic harm.
Given the verdict, I invited Len Niehoff (professor at the University of Michigan Law School and of counsel at Honigman Miller Schwartz & Cohn) to comment on the Gawker $140.1 million dollar award and the First Amendment issues raised by it.
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Last Friday, a Florida jury awarded Hulk Hogan $115 million in damages against Gawker based upon its publication of a brief and grainy videotape of the former professional wrestler having sex. That verdict exceeded the $100 million requested by Hogan and was purportedly compensatory, although the punitive message was tough to miss. A few days later the jury added $25 million more in formally punitive damages, which seems redundantly oppressive if not, so to speak, orgiastic.
The extravagance of the verdict is a problem unto itself. The evidence presented at trial seems wholly inadequate to yield such a number. And such outsized verdicts raise grave concerns when they come in speech cases. As the Supreme Court observed in New York Times, Co. v. Sullivan (1964), substantial damage awards can chill speech just as effectively as a criminal prosecution, casting a “pall of fear and timidity” over free expression. In Sullivan, the Court observed that the libel damage award at issue there was 100 times greater than the penalty imposed under the much-maligned Sedition Act. The verdict in question here, based on true speech, is about 28,000 times greater.
Apart from damages, the finding of liability is itself worrisome. In Snyder v. Phelps (2011), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment barred invasion of privacy claims brought by a significantly more sympathetic plaintiff than Hulk Hogan. There, the father of a deceased soldier sued the Westboro Baptist Church for picketing and displaying offensive signs near his son’s funeral. The plaintiff advanced a variety of claims, including invasion of privacy. The jury awarded millions of dollars in damages to the plaintiff but the Supreme Court reversed, at various points in its opinion framing the relevant inquiry in two different ways.
In one portion of its opinion, the Court suggests that the test is whether the speech was of “only private concern.” The Court cited a case involving an individual’s credit report, which had been sent to a limited number of subscribers who were bound not to disseminate it. The Court noted that the publication in question there was of interest “solely” to the speaker and a specified audience.
If this is the test then Gawker clearly prevails. Prior to Gawker’s publication of the tape, Hulk Hogan had widely disseminated stories about his sexual exploits and they had become a matter of public discussion. These facts make it difficult (if not impossible) to argue that Hogan’s sexual escapades were “only” or “solely” of interest to him and a small collection of intimates.
In another portion of the opinion, the Court suggests that the test is whether the speech “can be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.” The Court stressed that this is a highly contextual inquiry and that the “inappropriate or controversial character” of the speech is “irrelevant.”
Hogan’s case presents a closer question under this standard but it is important to understand why. Let’s assume that Gawker had published a story describing Hogan’s sexual activities without showing the tape. Under those circumstances, it seems clear that Gawker’s conduct would pass the test. Gawker would simply have conveyed facts that had become a matter of public interest and on which a number of media entities had reported—and continue to report. Gawker would have done what the media have done for years: talk about the noteworthy sex life of a public figure.
What makes this case a closer one is Gawker’s decision to show the tape itself. This is almost certainly what outraged the jury. And it is not an irrelevant consideration—indeed, in Snyder the Supreme Court suggests that the “form” of the speech can matter. But should the distinction between describing and showing make a difference in this particular case? I am skeptical, for two primary reasons.
Last week’s jury verdict awarding Hulk Hogan $115 million had onlookers predicting the death of Gawker Media . . . . — Kaja Sadowski, USA Today, March 21, 2016
First, this distinction carries with it the risk that we will punish speech because it was conveyed in a particularly powerful form. The jury that was outraged over the tape might have greeted with relative indifference a Gawker report describing the same events. The video evokes a stronger, and potentially unreasoned, response. As media law scholar Jane Kirtley noted in a recent New York Times op-ed., the jury may well have thought to itself: “That could be my daughter, or my grandson. Or me.” But, of course, the jury would not want Gawker to report descriptively on those things, either. In other words, we need to ensure that uniquely compelling speech does not receive less protection because of its capacity to prompt us to ask the wrong questions.
Second, where form does seem to make a difference that difference will often lie in substantially greater and more invasive detail. Say, hypothetically, that a presidential candidate who has been described as having small hands wants to dispel any implications about the size of his penis. The candidate publicly offers a vague “guarantee” that there is “no problem” in this respect. Reporting on these events certainly raises no privacy concern. But we would likely feel differently about the broadcast of a purloined security video that showed the candidate in a restroom and provided definitive data.
In contrast, consider the hypothetical author of a memoir that offers detailed descriptions of his or her many sexual encounters. A report on these events would, again, raise no privacy concerns. But, here, we might also conclude that a videotape of the same events did not constitute an invasion of privacy, given the level of specificity that the author already shared with us. An argument can be made that the Hogan case is much closer to this hypothetical than to the prior one.
What’s next? The damage award will likely be reduced and a settlement may emerge. Or, perhaps, an appellate court will reverse. There is, after all, a compelling argument that Hogan cannot object to further publicity about his time in the sexual limelight having, well, “thrust himself” there.
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A top Gawker Media executive [Heather Dietrick, Gawker Media’s president and general counsel] says the company expects a jury’s multi-million dollar award in a sex video case will be overturned by an appeals court. — ABC News, March 21, 2016
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- Judge: Pamela M. Campbell (Sixth Judicial Circuit, Pinellas County, Florida)
- Eriq Gardner, “Why Hulk Hogan’s $140 Million Gawker Verdict Is a Signpost for the Future,” Hollywood Reporter, March 21, 2016
- Noah Feldman, “Sorry, Hulk Hogan, the First Amendment Is on Gawker’s Side,” BloombergView, March 21, 2016
- Bryan Fisher, “Hulk Hogan, the tape, and the 1st Amendment,” NewsNow, March 21, 2016
- Michael Wolff, “Hulk Hogan’s $115M Verdict and Why Gawker Should Settle the Case,” Hollywood Reporter, March 20, 2016
- Erik Eckholm, “Legal Experts See Little Effect on News Media From Hulk Hogan Verdict,” New York Times, March 19, 2016
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