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Across the Nation: Hulk Hogan sex-video verdict could have limited impact

Hulk Hogan sex-video verdict could have limited impact

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hulk Hogan’s $140 million courtroom victory against Gawker for posting a sex tape of the former pro wrestler was many things, including a lurid inside look at the business of celebrity gossip and a dispute over what constitutes newsworthiness.

But legal experts generally agree on what it wasn’t: a serious threat to the First Amendment.

At this point, it is only a jury verdict, and an appeals court could reduce it or throw it out altogether. Even if it is upheld, its effects could be narrow, because in running the video, the sex-and-gossip site did something most media organizations wouldn’t even consider doing, legal experts said.

Or as University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks put it: “It’s hard to imagine that any credible media outlet is truly confused about the difference between a sex tape and the Pentagon Papers.”

Hogan sued Gawker for invasion of privacy after it published a video of him having sex with his best friend’s wife. Hogan said he didn’t know he was being taped. Gawker argued that the footage was newsworthy information about a public figure and thus protected by the First Amendment.

The jury disagreed, awarding the 62-year-old Hogan $115 million in compensatory damages last week and $25 million in punitive damages on Monday.

Michael Sullivan, Gawker Media’s lawyer, told the jury that the compensatory damages could prove “debilitating.” And he warned that the verdict will “send a chill down the spine of writers, producers and publishers” in the media.

Some legal experts were dubious of that.

Gawker made its fortune on the snarky and the salacious, which makes it different from traditional media outlets, said Benjamin Mullin, managing editor of Poynter.org, the website for the media ethics school based in St. Petersburg.

“Not many news organizations grapple with the decision to publish an edited sex tape,” he said.

 

Judge asks U.S. to defend secrecy of Trump associate’s history

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has asked the Obama administration to shield from public disclosure court records related to the once-secret criminal history of a former Donald Trump business partner.

In an unusual order prompted by an unsealing request from The Associated Press, U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan said that unless the Justice Department acts before April 18, he will decide whether to make the court files public under the assumption that federal prosecutors don’t care.

The case involves Felix Sater, a Trump business associate who pleaded guilty in a major Mafia-linked stock fraud scheme in the late 1990s and cooperated with the government. The AP reported in December that, even after learning about Sater’s background, Trump tapped Sater for a business development role in 2010 that included the title of senior adviser to Trump, and had an office in the Trump Organization’s headquarters.

Sater’s criminal past initially drew attention because of his ties to Trump, now the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. But legal disputes over information related to Sater’s efforts to cooperate with the government — which was ongoing during the period he worked with Trump — also raises questions about court secrecy.

“It seems to me that the government has a unique interest in keeping documents that relate to cooperation agreements under seal,” Cogan wrote in his order. “The government should speak and assert its position as to whether the public’s right to access each document in the record is outweighed by a compelling need for secrecy.”

 

Filing confirms witness to testify at Hastert sentencing

CHICAGO — A filing in Dennis Hastert’s hush-money case confirms prosecutors intend to call at least one witness at the former U.S. House speaker’s sentencing.

An order posted Wednesday by the presiding judge doesn’t identify that witness. The same order also delays sentencing to April 27, citing witness availability for the previous April 8 date.

The order also indicates a hearing was held Tuesday on those issues without prior public notice.

Secrecy has surrounded the case since it began in June.

Hastert pleaded guilty to violating bank laws in seeking to pay $3.5 million in hush money to some referred to in the indictment only as “Individual A.” Prosecutors have spoken before about giving victims closure but never identified any.

Several new pre-sentencing documents are also sealed, including a supplemental plea agreement.

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