Last week Gawker Media published an unusually vile story about an escort's apparent attempt to blackmail a married entertainment executive. In just one post, Gawker outed a man for an alleged same-sex encounter and acted as the willing instrument of blackmail.
Many Internet Lawyers have suggested that Gawker committed extortion, or acted as accessory after the fact to extortion, and that its writers may be criminally liable.
Answer: no, probably not.
Assume For the Moment They Aren't Just Credulous Hacks
Let's set aside for the moment the distinct possibility that the whole incident is the invention of an unbalanced conspiracy theorist who duped Gawker through the intricate method of saying something scandalous that reinforced their worldviews.
Let's also assume, for the sake of argument, that the escort's communications to the victim constituted extortion: that at some point he said something like "use your influence to help me with my legal problem or I will reveal to the media that you sought to hire me for sex." Gawker's post containing some of the alleged communications is down, and we can hardly trust Gawker to have reported them completely or accurately.
Did Gawker Commit Extortion? No.
Title 18, United States Code, section 875(d) makes extortion a felony:
Whoever, with intent to extort from any person, firm, association, or corporation, any money or other thing of value, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee or of another or the reputation of a deceased person or any threat to accuse the addressee or any other person of a crime, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
Many courts have defined "other thing of value" broadly enough that it can probably include the victim's use of his influence to assist the extortionist in a legal matter.1
The escort may have violated this statute, but Gawker didn't. So far as we know, Gawker and its writers didn't demand anything of value from the victim. Rather, once the extortionist came to them, they printed his story. They carried out the course of action threatened by the extortionist, but they didn't make the threat or demand the thing of value themselves.
Was Gawker an Accessory after the Fact? No.
Title 18, United States Code, section 3 criminalizes being an accessory after the fact. However, that status is narrowly defined to helping people escape:
Whoever, knowing that an offense against the United States has been committed, receives, relieves, comforts or assists the offender in order to hinder or prevent his apprehension, trial or punishment, is an accessory after the fact.
Gawker didn't do that. If anything, publishing the extortionist's story made it more likely he'd be caught.
Did Gawker Conspire To Commit Extortion? No.
I don't think Gawker conspired to commit extortion, either. The elements of federal conspiracy are "1) an agreement to accomplish an illegal objective, 2) coupled with one or more acts in furtherance of the illegal purpose, and 3) the requisite intent necessary to commit the underlying substantive offense." But here the unlawful objective is demanding something of value (an exercise of influence) in exchange for silence. There's no indication that Gawker did that or agreed to it. If Gawker had said "unless you help this guy, we'll publish," that would be conspiracy to commit extortion. But what Gawker did instead was publish the threatened embarrassing information. There's no indication that they attempted to help the extortionist get anything from the victim.
Did Gawker Aid and Abet Extortion? No.
Someone can also be guilty of extortion if they aid or abet it under Title 18, United States Code, Section 2:
(a) Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.
(b) Whoever willfully causes an act to be done which if directly performed by him or another would be an offense against the United States, is punishable as a principal.
(1) that the accused had the specific intent to facilitate the commission of a crime by another, (2) that the accused had the requisite intent of the underlying substantive offense, (3) that the accused assisted or participated in the commission of the underlying substantive offense, and (4) that someone committed the underlying substantive offense.
That's not what Gawker did. Gawker didn't intend to help the extortionist get something of value from the victim in exchange for silence. That's the opposite of what Gawker wanted — a lurid story to draw clicks. Gawker lacked specific intent to extort, so didn't aid and abet extortion.
There Oughta Be A Law
You could imagine a law that, like a prohibition of receiving stolen property, makes it illegal to publish embarrassing facts to help an extortionist carry out their threat. But that law would probably run afoul of the First Amendment, like any law that ascribes to a publisher of information the liability of their source.
Gawker and its writers probably didn't violate federal law.2 Whether they have civil liability is a different (and potentially more complicated) question. And, of course, they have moral liability: they're vermin.
- That distinguishes Section 875(d) extortion from Hobbs Act extortion, which requires that the extortionist deprive the victim of money or tangible valuables. ▲
- I don't think the result is any different under the law of New York, where Gawker squats, nor Texas, where the extortionist lives, nor where the victim lives. I could explain but do some work yourselves, you entitled, indolent bastards. ▲
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