CNN faced intense criticism this week when a CNN columnist seemed to imply that it would uncover the identity of a Reddit user who allegedly produced an anti-CNN, Trump GIF if he reneged on an apology for the action. However some observers thought that CNN could also be facing a serious legal problem.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) stated on Twitter that he thought CNN could get in legal trouble because of Georgia’s state law that prohibits theft by extortion.
Cruz stated that he figured that CNN’s attorneys would be looking closely at GA 16.8.16 Theft by Extortion statute. He said that if CNN made an effort to obtain the Reddit user’s IP address, it is a crime in Georgia if they made a threat to disseminate information that may subject a person to contempt, hatred or ridicule.
It was not just Cruz who thought so. Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame also claimed on Twitter that the news network may have violated both state and federal laws related to coercion and the freedom of speech.
Assange argued that CNN committed a crime in violation of New York state’s coercion codes. That statute states that a person is guilty of coercion in the second degree when he attempts to induce a person to engage in a type of conduct in which the person has a legal right to not engage in, or to abstain from engaging in an action in which he has a legal right to engage.
CNN is defending how it handled the story. It issued a public statement this week stating that the company did not issue the name of the user because it was concerned about his safety. It denied that it made any attempt to blackmail the Reddit user.
Andrew Kaczynski, who was the reporter and editor who was involved in potentially naming the Reddit user, has issued several tweets that attempt to defend the action.
Reddit User Allegedly Produced the Pro-Trump GIF
The Reddit user at the center of this CNN bombshell story was the creator of the GIF that President Trump tweeted out on July 2. It shows Trump wrestling an opponent with a CNN logo on the opponent’s face. The Kfile CNN investigative team found the creator – who uses the name ‘HanA**holeSolo’ – by making a comparison to information that is posted on Reddit to profiles on Facebook. CNN ended up not publishing the person’s name. But it did make a caveat to the decision.
It noted that CNN did not publish the person’s name because he is a private person, who had issued an apology for offending posts he had made. It also stated that the person promised that he would not repeat the ‘ugly behavior’ on social media again. CNN stated that it reserves the right to release his identity if this were to change.
This stated caveat by CNN suggests, some critics charge, that the news network was attempting to intimidate and blackmail a private citizen by making threats of releasing his name in public.
Kaczynski stated that the Reddit user was aware of the Internet scandal around the story. He said that the user contacted him and said that he did not feel threatened by the statement.
Still, many in the media and in politics stated they were shocked that CNN would appear to threaten to dox a private citizen. ‘Dox’ is a slang term that means publicly sharing private details about a private citizen.
Even the left-leaning Vox stated that CNN was made to look very bad with a statement that made it look as if the news outlet was trying to intimidate a private citizen of the US.
However, some experts said that tying the anonymity of the source to future behavior, while unusual, was not unethical. Andrew Seaman, who is the ethics chair of the Society for Professional Journalists, stated that journalists must support the open and civil debate of all types of views. But he noted that a journalist’s role is debatable when he is trying to police ‘proper’ conduct on other types of platforms.
Also, where would these agreements with sources end, he noted. Would a journalist agree to not identify a car thief because he agreed to never steal a car again?
Another journalism ethics expert – Indira Lakshmanan of the Poynter Institute — stated that the condition that CNN gave for not revealing the person’s identity was written in an awkward way that may make some readers jump to conclusions.
Extortion Can Be Prosecuted as a Federal Crime
The CNN story is still developing as of this writing. Thus it is far too early to speculate that a federal criminal charge could be in the future. But it is clear that extortion is a very serious federal charge, as is coercion.
There are many types of actions that can be charged as extortion under federal law. Extortion can stand alone as a single federal charge, or it can be one of several offenses including bribery and corruption.
One of the most common types of extortion at the federal level provides a prison term of up to three years for federal government agents who commit any act of extortion.
All US states have laws that outlaw both extortion and coercion. Federal extortion laws typically focus on federal workers, or threats that are issued by federal workers. However, extortion can be prosecuted as a federal crime even when there is no federal worker involved, if the alleged crime were to cross state lines.
The punishment for an extortion conviction will depend upon the nature of the extortion and whether a federal worker was involved. Federal sentencing guidelines come into play. The base offense level for an extortion case is 18, and increases can occur depending upon the type of crime.