Hulk Hogan takes on Gawker in a Florida courtroom on 7 March in a case that could mean life or death for the New York gossip website, who published a sex tape featuring the wrestler and his best friend's wife in 2012. Gawker is being sued for $100m (£70m) in civil court in Hogan's – real name Terry Bollea – home town of St Petersburg.
That kind of money could sink Gawker, which has defended the publication of the tape as a freedom of speech issue and has already had to sell part of its business in order to pay legal fees, according to founder Nick Denton. The video shows Hulk Hogan, 62, having sex with Heather Clem, the wife of his friend and radio shock jock Bubba "The Love Sponge" Clem in 2006. Clem settled with Hogan in a separate case for $5,000, the New York Post reported.
"We are defending the First Amendment against Hulk Hogan's effort to create a world where celebrities can promote themselves around any topic – in this case, sex – and then veto how the media covers their lives," Gawker said in a statement. Denton later told The Guardian that the case had "constitutional implications". Under US law the right to privacy can be superseded by the first amendment and public interest.
Gawker first published the video in a 2012 post on its website alongside an article that discussed the intercourse in unflattering terms. The website's defence is that not only does Hogan regularly discuss his sex life as part of his marketing campaign, but that he had publicly denied having sex with Clem. The website won a previous ruling in federal court, when judges supported its right to publish, but Hogan brought a case in civil court.
But the case is being fought in Hogan's home town of St Petersburg and in front of a jury, raising fears that the New York website will not receive a fair hearing in a place where the wrestler is a prominent and respected member of the community. Even if, as expected, any such ruling would be overturned on appeal, Gawker would have to pay the US$100m immediately – and it is money that the website does not have.
"Gawker is defending its First Amendment right to join an ongoing conversation about a celebrity when others are talking about it and the celebrity is talking about it. This is a crucial issue not only for Gawker, but for all media organizations," the website's chief lawyer, Seth Berlin, told the New York Times.
The first order of affairs, local media reported 7 March, will be picking a jury. This will be a challenge for the defence, not least because Hogan is a well-respected member of the St Petersburg community. He also benefits from being one of the most recognisable wrestlers of all time, with fans spread across the world. Gawker, meanwhile, will be couched as a New York gossip rag invading on the privacy of the hometown's golden boy.
But Charles Rose, director of the Centre for Excellence in Advocacy at Stetson University College of Law, told the Tampa Bay Times that the case will not be that simple. Hogan did, after all, have sex with best friend's wife: "You've got competing lines across the board. It may very well be that the jury that's going to function the best for the trial is the one that dislikes you less than they dislike the other side."
Hulk Hogan, who was fired by WWE in 2015 after being caught on tape making racist comments, has appeared fired up by the case, which he is couching in the wrestling lingo that has defined his career so far: "I am going to slam another giant," he told his 1.41 million Twitter followers last week. "Hogan vrs Gawker!"