ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A palpable sense of shock rippled through a courtroom here Wednesday morning when the former editor-in-chief of Gawker.com was shown in a videotaped deposition suggesting that when it comes to the newsworthiness of celebrities’ sex videos, children more than 4 years old are fair game.
The former editor, Albert J. Daulerio, a defendant in an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit brought by retired wrestler Hulk Hogan, made the comment under questioning by a plaintiff’s lawyer, who had asked him where he drew the line when it came to posting videos of people having sex.
“Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?” asked the lawyer, Douglas E. Mirell.
“If they were a child,” Daulerio replied.
“Under what age?” the lawyer pressed.
The exchange took place during depositions taken last year in advance of the trial that began Monday in the suit by the retired wrestler, known in the proceedings by his legal name, Terry G. Bollea, against Gawker Media; its founder, Nick Denton; Daulerio; and others.
Bollea is seeking $100 million in damages, saying that amounts to the harm he suffered after Gawker’s posting in 2012 of a secretly recorded video showing him having sex with a friend’s wife.
The case is prompting significant questions about how far First Amendment rights stretch in an era when the unregulated Internet is ripe for abuse by anyone with a computer keyboard.
In addition, testimony this week by Daulerio and other current and former members of Gawker’s staff has raised a curtain on the culture of the website and others like it that traffic in salacious fare in an effort to gain readers.
Asked whether sex sells, Daulerio replied, “I’m sure.”
In such a culture, he went on, it was “pretty standard operating procedure” to seize upon and publish photographs and videos of celebrities in compromising or intimate situations, regardless of whether the celebrity might object or be embarrassed. Daulerio conceded that no such consideration guided Gawker’s publication of lewd images of the former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre or of photographs of a topless Duchess of Cambridge.
“She’s a public figure, and those pictures were published elsewhere,” Daulerio said, referring to Prince William’s wife. He acknowledged that there had been no discussion in the Gawker newsroom at the time whether the publication of the pictures constituted an invasion of the former Kate Middleton’s privacy.
Similar thinking, Daulerio said, dictated the site’s handling of the video of Hulk Hogan, which he noted had been provided anonymously to him in the mail and for which no money had changed hands.
“I was very enthusiastic about writing about it,” Daulerio said. He explained that he had “enjoyed watching the video” and was eager to attach his commentary alongside it on the site.
“I found it very amusing,” he said. “I thought it was newsworthy.”
In response to a question from Mirell, the defendant said that neither he nor anyone else at Gawker had made any attempt to contact Bollea to ask him whether he was in fact the man in the grainy video, and how he felt about Gawker’s intention of publishing it.
“You didn’t really care, did you?” Mirell suggested.
“No,” Daulerio said.
A moment later, after an objection from a lawyer for Gawker, Mirell persisted. “So it’s fair to say that whether he suffered emotional distress or not, that played no part in your decision whether or what to publish,” he suggested.
“Correct,” Daulerio replied.
Videotaped testimony by his boss, Denton, was also shown to the jury, later in the day, even though both men were sitting behind their lawyers in the courtroom. The plaintiffs’ use of taped depositions at this early stage of the trial seemed intended to stave off cross-examinations by the defense. Both defendants, however, are on their own legal team’s list of witnesses, to be called to the stand when it is the defense’s turn to present evidence.
Under questioning in the deposition, recorded in October 2013, Denton said that, contrary to Daulerio’s feelings, he had not been “very excited” by news that Gawker had received a video showing Hulk Hogan having sex with a woman on a four-poster bed.
“We all have sex,” Denton said, noting that he preferred stories that had “some kind of meaning.”
A letter from a lawyer for Bollea, asking Gawker to take down the video shortly after it had been posted, “wasn’t persuasive,” Denton said. “We continued to believe in its newsworthiness.”