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Bollea v. Gawker Media, LLC

District court denies motion for preliminary injunction by Hulk Hogan to compel removal of sex tape from website and to prevent tape from being posted on other websites, finding that tape was a matter of public concern protected by the First Amendment.

Plaintiff Terry Gene Bollea, known professionally as the wrestler Hulk Hogan, sought a preliminary injunction against defendants Gawker Media and related entities, requiring defendants to remove excerpts from a sex tape of Bollea and a woman not his wife that defendants posted on on or about October 4, 2012, and to prevent defendants from posting any portion of the sex tape on any other website. The district court denied his motion.

According to Bollea, six years prior to this case, he engaged in consensual sexual relations with a woman who was not his wife and the encounter was videotaped, allegedly unbeknownst to plaintiff. Defendants obtained a copy of the sex tape and posted excerpts of it on their website without Bollea’s permission. Defendants allegedly have refused numerous requests from Bollea to remove the excerpts from the site. Bollea filed suit against defendants, asserting a number of claims including invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion, publication of private facts, violation of the Florida common law right of publicity, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and copyright infringement, and filed a motion for a preliminary injunction.

The district court held that a plaintiff seeking a prior restraint on speech must establish that the restraint will be effective and that no less extreme measures are available. Bollea failed to overcome the presumption that the preliminary injunction would be an unconstitutional prior restraint because defendants’ First Amendment rights override plaintiff’s right of privacy. Noting the U.S. Supreme Court had recently recognized that the heart of First Amendment protection is speech on matters of public concern, the court reasoned that the sex tape constituted a matter of public concern, demonstrated by Bollea’s public persona, his reality television show, his own book describing his affair, and his own public discussion relating to his marriage and the tape, and that the inappropriate or controversial nature of the speech does not affect whether it is a matter of public concern. The court also found that plaintiff was not entitled to a preliminary injunction because he failed to demonstrate that he would suffer irreparable harm if the tape were not removed. Embarrassment and economic loss do not justify a preliminary injunction, according to the court. In fact, noting the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that even minimal interference with the First Amendment freedom of the press causes an irreparable injury, the court found that compelling the removal of the tape from the website would disserve the public interest. In addition, the court concluded that this was a case in which “the proverbial ‘cat is out of the bag[,]’” since the tape had already been posted and injunctive relief likely would be ineffective.