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Recently CNN went after the Reddit user who created a GIF (animated image) of President Trump smashing a WWE fighter with CNN's logo superimposed on the WWE fighter's head making it look like Trump was bashing CNN.

Once the meme went viral, CNN went after the user by finding out his identity. CNN claim that they attempted to contact the user but without response. 2 days later after the alleged "failed communication attempts", the Reddit user posted an apology to Reddit and deleted all his "offending posts". In CNN's article, they claim that they "reserve the right to release the identity of the Reddit user" if he re-offends so to speak.

My question is:

  1. Is this legally classified as blackmail making it a punishable offence?
  2. Is releasing this person's identity against his will illegal considering that they are using his likeness on a commercial platform?
  • I don't think your title does justice to the questions you've asked. In fact, I don't think your title really makes sense. When you say, "CNN blackmails private citizen" you can't really ask, "Is it illegal?" since blackmail is by definition illegal. This may seem like nitpicking, but it isn't. When talking about legal cases, it's important to keep straight on what is a fact about the world -- what CNN and the Redditor did -- and what is a fact about the law -- what constitutes blackmail, and whether what CNN did broke the law. It might better to ask, "Did CNN just blackmail a private citizen? – Just a guy Jul 11 '17 at 20:05
  • The CNN article postscript was poorly worded, but I'd argue doesn't show intent to blackmail: 1) Reporters used publicly available info to figure out who he was and reach out for an interview. 2) He declined, deleted his history, and apologized. 3) Reporters made an editorial decision not to publish his name, even though they could have, as a newsworthy individual. 4) Editors added a poorly worded postscript intended to convey that their decision to not release his name was an editorial one, and not the result of a "deal", and they reserve the right to revisit. 5) The internet explodes. – BradC Jul 13 '17 at 7:44
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According to Julian Assange, CNN committed a crime violating § 135.60 of the New York criminal code "coercion".

§ 135.60 of the New York criminal code

Reddit, while being a private company, is still considered a public forum. Anything said on these sites can be used against you if your actually identity is discovered.

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    I feel like Assange on Twitter might not be the most credible source to cite, especially considering how the legality of some of his own actions is in question. – Daniel Jul 6 '17 at 16:23
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    Don't take his word for it. Read the letter of the law and make your own judgement. – Digital fire Jul 6 '17 at 19:24
  • With that argument, every judge to lets a criminal go free on parole would be guilty of blackmail. "12 months on parole, which means you go free, but if you commit another crime, you automatically go to jail for 12 months. " – gnasher729 Jul 7 '17 at 17:06
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    May I ask why New York statute is cited here? CNN is headquartered in Atlanta, GA. Is it because the said Reddit user is located in the State of New York where the video was edited? – Ryan L Jul 10 '17 at 16:39
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TL;DNR: Blackmail seems straightforward, but it's not. It depends so much on the specific facts of the case that we need an expert to find out how this case would turn out.

A somewhat longer take:

Blackmail is a funny thing. It seems simple and straightforward until you start thinking about it. Take the classic blackmail scheme -- the cheating husband. The blackmailer does two things She: 1) asks the husband for money; and 2) threatens to tell his wife he's cheating. Both 1 & 2 are legal if done separately, but when done together they are a crime. Why is that?

There are lots of explanations for when Legal + Legal = Illegal. Unfortunately, none of the explanations seem to explain the law very well. For example, most of us think it would be legal to say to a thief, "Give me back my property, and I won't call the police," or for a judge to say, "Stay out of trouble for the next year, or I will put you back in jail." But both of those meet the definition of blackmail (as gnasher pointed out above!). So why are they ok?

Which category the CNN/Redditor case fits into depends on how courts have drawn the boundaries between blackmail and hard-bargaining (or other lawful actions). In other words, to answer your question, we probably need to hear from someone who actually knows the law. We also need to know a bit more about the facts of the case. For example, it might matter whether the Redditor offered to take stuff down and behave, or whether CNN offered to keep his name private if he stopped posting stuff they don't like.

It's clear CNN did not help themselves in the "court of public opinion" by the way they explained themselves. Whether they did not help themselves in real courts is another matter.

Eugene Volokh had a nice piece on the complexities of blackmail on the Volokh Conspiracy this week. It's worth a read:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/07/06/it-is-actually-difficult-to-define-blackmail/?utm_term=.d59b78a91ea4

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