Free Speech

'Working Washington' Calls for Prosecution of Amazon.com—for Amazon's Use of Ordinary Political Tactics

According to the group's theory, a vast range of political hardball is a crime.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Washington law provides,

A person is guilty of intimidating a public servant [a felony] if, by use of a threat, he or she attempts to influence a public servant's vote, opinion, decision, or other official action as a public servant.

"[T]hreat" includes, alongside threats of crime and a few other kinds of conduct (such as revealing embarrassing secrets), "communicat[ing]" "the intent"

(i) To bring about or continue a strike, boycott, or other similar collective action to obtain property which is not demanded or received for the benefit of the group which the actor purports to represent; or

(j) To do any other act which is intended to harm substantially the person threatened or another with respect to his or her health, safety, business, financial condition, or personal relationships.

Now here's the theory from an open letter to Washington AG Robert Ferguson by Working Washington, a progressive advocacy group:

As you know, on May 2nd, a top Amazon executive stated the company was "putting a pause" on expansion in Seattle in an attempt to influence the city council to reject a proposed $0.26/hour tax on the largest companies in the city to address our housing and homelessness crisis. This was a clear threat by Amazon to do substantial harm to the business and financial condition of the city of Seattle if public officials did not act as they demanded.

It's the sort of thing you might expect from a subprime mob boss lording it over a company town—and that's not just a metaphor.

It's a felony under state law to threaten substantial harm to the business or financial condition of any person, corporation or unincorporated association in an attempt to influence the vote or any other official action of a public servant. We believe there is abundant evidence Amazon has broken that law, and we urge you to investigate and prosecute Amazon for this serious crime.

[The letter quotes the statute above, and adds: -EV] [Under Washington law, "person" is defined] as including corporations, which means that this law protects municipal corporations such as the City of Seattle….

Because the city budget depends in part on construction-related revenue, Amazon's "pause" was immediately and universally interpreted by politicians, journalists, and the public at large as a threat to inflict substantial harm on the business and financial conditions of the city, as well as on homeless individuals in need of services. There is certainly a possibility that the full array of impacts of any actual Amazon "pause" could also include reduced pressure on housing prices and increased opportunity for other tech companies to grow — and therefore fewer people living on the streets and a stronger and more diversified economy. However, in order to qualify as a criminal threat, the statements at issue do not need to be a threat to take action that would necessarily cause harm, they need only be statements of an intent to take action that itself reveals an intent to inflict that injury.

These facts add up to a clear violation of RCW 9A.76.180: Amazon threatened to harm substantially the business and financial condition of the corporate person of the city of Seattle in order to attempt to influence the decision of the public servants who serve on the Seattle city council.

Working Washington's theory, of course, would criminalize a vast range of ordinary political action. It would criminalize an advocacy group's threatening to boycott a city if the city council doesn't change some law that the threatener thinks unjust: After all, under that theory, threatening a city with the loss of revenue is threatening to do an act that's "intended to harm substantially … another [person, including a city,] with respect to his or her … business[ or] financial condition."

It would criminalize legislator A's threat to vote against a law that would benefit legislator B's constituents, unless the other legislator voted in favor of a law that would benefit legislator A's constituents.

It would criminalize an advocacy group's public statement that it would urge its members to vote against any legislator who supported some law that the advocacy group thought was oppressive. That, too, after all, would be threatening to do an act "intended to harm substantially" the legislator "with respect to his or her … financial condition," since losing office means losing the salary that comes with it.

The list could go on.

Part of the fault here, of course, is with the Washington statute, which is written vaguely and broadly. But, as best I can tell, Washington officials have avoided this problem by reading the statute as sensibly limited by First Amendment principles, and by normal political custom: Publicly threatening to do a legal act that would legally deprive the government of revenue, as a means of trying to pressure government officials, is clearly protected by the First Amendment, and likewise for the other examples I gave; for just one of many cases on the subject, see the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in the Rick Perry prosecution. (Indeed, one could read another part of the definition of "threat" as implicitly immunizing some such threats: The statute also expressly covers threats "[t]o bring about or continue a strike, boycott, or other similar collective action to obtain property which is not demanded or received for the benefit of the group which the actor purports to represent," which might be read as implicitly excluding other threatened strikes, boycotts, or collective action—and would thus exclude from the statute Amazon's own threatened corporate action in this very controversy. But Working Washington is obviously not taking such a narrowing reading of "threat.")

Certainly left-wing advocacy groups have long used such tactics, as have businesses. This particular advocacy group, however, seems willing to demand felony prosecution for such normal political action. Its political opponents, it thinks, aren't just wrong, and don't just deserve to be taxed: They deserve to go to prison, for playing the same sort of political hardball that advocacy groups routinely play. Working Washington and many other groups like it have been all about using economic and political power to accomplish their ends (as is the norm in a democracy). But off to jail with those who similarly try to use their economic and political power to accomplish the opposite ends.

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  1. I’m astounded that there isn’t already a principle in the law that no one can do wrong by threatening to perform an act or omission that would be lawful if performed.

    1. Did you miss the part where this is Seattle? Principles in law need not apply.

      1. And neither, apparently, do the basic laws of economics. It’s really just a shame that incredible stupidity can’t be criminalized. But then who would run Seattle? Or California, for that matter?

    2. That definition would legalize blackmail regarding any sort embarrassing information.

    3. You’re shocked by liberals trying to outlaw legal acts? John Doe in Wisconsin. Perry in Texas. Flynn and the Logan act. This is normal behavior of statists. This is the state that prosecuted Boeing for expanding to south Carolina.

      1. Uh, every criminal law outlaws legal acts.

        And I did not realize that Robert Mueller was a liberal.

        1. Really? You’re surpised the guy defending the most corrupt presidential candidate in history by smearing the current republican one is a liberal?

          1. Statist, not liberal. Please, get your definitions correct.

    4. See Eugene’s classic posts on blackmail.

      It’s a legal act or omission for me to publish information about your extramarital affair.
      It’s a legal act for me to ask you for money.
      It’s not legal for me to ask you for money on the condition that I will publish the affair if you don’t.

    5. My last month paycheck was for 11000 dollars… All i did was simple online work from comfort at home for 3-4 hours/day that I got from this agency I discovered over the internet and they paid me for it 95 bucks every hour…

      This is what I do…. http://www.onlinereviewtech.com

  2. To do any other act which is intended to harm substantially the person threatened or another with respect to his or her health, safety, business, financial condition, or personal relationships.

    I will not vote for you if you do not vote the way I like.

  3. How long as Working Washington been around? It would seem likely that they’ve probably violated their own legal theory in the course of their own advocacy.

    1. Their website reports that their strikers sparked the fight that won Seattle’s $15.00 minimum wage, so they may have encouraged the city council to change their votes by threatening to harm businesses.

  4. Meanwhile, Trump’s suggestion that media who report negatively on hi be stripped of White House credentials appears not to trouble EV at all.

    Odd how threats to free expression are worthy of note only if they come from left-wing sources.

    1. Like this one?

      Campus Protesters Try to Silence Conservative Speaker, Demand College President’s Resignation

      Quote:
      Amy Lutz, a program officer at YAF, said the group was able to funnel roughly 100 students into the theater on the CSU-LA campus before protesters surrounded the entrances, preventing anyone from entering or leaving for the duration of Shapiro’s speech.
      Police escorted Shapiro out of the theater at the end of his speech, citing “safety concerns.”

      1. They didn’t stop the speech from being delivered, did they? So what’s the problem?

        /sarcasm

    2. Come on, bernard. I know you’re a regular reader. Prof Volokh has written several times on the corrosive effects of Trump’s threats. He’s on the record as condemning those tweets even when they turned out to be empty rhetoric. You know better.

      1. Yeah, but if Volokh doesn’t offer a vehement condemnation of Trump in every single post, that’s proof he’s secretly a Trump supporter

    3. There is no constitutional right to sit in the white house correspondence area. There is no duty of the white house to provide daily press briefings. What is your issue besides ignorance?

      1. And if there’s no Constitutional right against something, then who cares what you do!

        1. We can care about the norms of the WHPC without making it a first amendment issue.

          You guys are talking right past one another.

    4. The bigger threat is the whole “legitimate news organization” thing. It’s a factual predicate for actual restrictions on speech.

    5. I’m deeply troubled that the government would actually credential “the press” that seems like a violation of the first amendment there by creating a class that has greater first amendment rights than the rest of us.

      I think what they should do is create “shall issue” press passes, where anyone can get a press pass if they pass a security check. Then the first 50 people who show up everyday get into to the White House press briefing room. If they misbehave they lose their credentials, and get kicked out and maybe spend a couple of nights in the slammer. Jim Acosta included.

      1. I don’t believe the government actually does credential the press for these purposes. To avoid constitutional issues, it generally delegates that function to the press themselves.

  5. The dark cloud of fascism is always descending upon Republicans but it turns out to be composed of progressives and Democrats.

    Wisconsin, the Surveillance State

    Quotes:
    [The Wisconsin Department of Justice] released a 91-page report on the leak, and it shows is that Wisconsin public officials set up what amounts to a political spying operation.

    The John Doe investigations have been a fixture of Wisconsin politics and courts for more than half a decade. Originating in 2010 with a request from Milwaukee County executive Scott Walker?who was running for governor?to investigate some missing money in his own office, they metastasized into a series of wide-ranging witch hunts used to harass and intimidate conservatives…

    In 2012, the Milwaukee County district attorney asked for a second John Doe probe. Law enforcement officers began making paramilitary-style, pre-dawn raids on the homes of unsuspecting private citizens. Armed officers threatened to beat doors down with battering rams; rifled through rooms; and seized phones, computers, and bank records without allowing the subjects to contact their attorneys.

    Their crime? Supporting conservative causes in Wisconsin.

    In its report, WisDOJ said it was “deeply concerned by what appears to have been the weaponizing of GAB by partisans in furtherance of political goals.”

    1. You always post about how the left are the Real Fascists, followed by some anecdote culled from conservative media.

      I’m all for noting that the left is flawed, but generalizing from the anecdotal flaws to call the entire party fascist is devaluating fascism.

      1. Well Sarcastro, why don’t you point out any political prosecution abuses on the right that come anywhere close to the John Doe investigation or the Rick Perry prosecution.

        1. And, Sarcastro, while you are at it, please justify the politically motivated and legally baseless prosecution of Tom Delay, the one that cost him his House seat, his reputation, many years and millions of dollars in defense costs, all to get to a final judicial decision that the conduct he was indicted and convicted for was entirely legal.

        2. Joe Arpaio?
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Arpaio# Targeting_of_political_opponents
          (remove space ” ” after “arpaio#”)

          Arpaio might be dismissed as an outlier, voted out of office, except that Vice President Mike Pence still recommends him as a swell guy:
          https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/may/1/ mike-pence-hails-joe-arpaio-during-visit-arizona/
          (remove space ” ” after “2018/may/1/)

      2. The plural of anecdote is data.

        The dark cloud of fascism is always descending upon Republicans but it always turns out to be composed of progressives and Democrats.

        Antifa: The Rise of the Violent Left – by The Atlantic

        Quote:

        Antifa’s violent tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left.

  6. The way things are going politically in Western WA suggests that the Amazon Second HQ might be a real prize.

    1. Yep. And they already have a list of second-best headquarter cities should they decide Seattle is no longer a good place for business

      1. I suspected that HQ2 would become HQ1 after the new location was up and running. Now it seems very astute of Amazon to want a new HQ outside Seattle.

        1. I suspected that HQ2 would become HQ1 after the new location was up and running. Now it seems very astute of Amazon to want a new HQ outside Seattle.

          Amazon has 40k employees in Seattle and already owns a good chunk of downtown Seattle. There is simply no where for them to grow in Seattle anymore. So searching for a second location makes sense. On top of that amazon.com politics of its leaders and most of its employees skew more towards the progressive politics of the city of Seattle than the opposite.

          In short – Amazon is never leaving Seattle. Only a conservative would take a minor dispute over a proposed tax and say something idiotic like a company will move 40k workers and shut down a dozen buildings. That is simply not how corporations are run.

          1. There are a lot of prog cities with less nasty politics, less combative activists and a less antagonistic business climates than Seattle. Of course most of them have state income taxes…

          2. You would probably be surprised how some companies are actually run then.

  7. This isn’t even “playing hardball”, this is telling them what will happen if they go and ruin their city in this manner.

  8. The only thing surprising about this is that I haven’t heard about it being tried before. Seems like a pretty logical movie, given the ideology.

    1. It has been tried before; in Wisconsin with the John Doe investigation of GOP officials by Progressive Dems, in Texas charging the Governor for using his lawful powers. Many others too.

  9. Can Amazon sue the city for threatening harm to their business by instituting a head tax?

    1. An income tax would hit them harder than this poll tax. But presumably they are annoyed at a tax that singles them out, rather than applying to all businesses.

  10. Then I demand the prosecution of Seattle’s public officials for having the city government participate in boycotts of other municipalities and states in order to intimidate them into adopting Seattle’s list of social justice causes!

    BTW, how could there possibly be a homelessness crisis in Seattle after the city increased its minimum wage?

    1. Because the minimum wage increase could not keep up with rising costs and prices due to Seattle’s growing tech industry.

      1. Wrong, apedad. Because the minimum wage increase destroyed the restaurant industry in Seattle, causing significant unemployment among those who USED to have jobs as waiters, busboys, cooks, etc. All of the growth in the service industries has been outside the city limits of Seattle, beyond the reach of progressive idiocy.

      2. Because the minimum wage can’t keep up with Seattle’s restrictive zoning and strangulation of new housing.

        Its simple supply and demand, and Seattle is intentionally throttling the supply. And I suppose its just coincidence that Seattle’s “privileged” population (White + Asian – Hispanics) is 84% , which is the highest of any major city the country.

      3. Then Seattle needs to raise its minimum wage higher and impose that additional $.26/hr tax on wages. And while they’re at it, the state government needs to allow cities like Seattle to impose rent control. More wage and price controls are guaranteed to solve the problem! Why didn’t anyone think of that before?

      4. Ha! Thanks for showing us all how ignorant you are if basic exonomics.

  11. “Don’t scream or it will be worse for you.”

    /rapists and rapacious governments

    1. Rape is not about sex, it’s about power and control. So is leftism.

      1. And robbery isn’t about the desire for material possessions, either. /sarc

      2. Rape isn’t about sex in the same way bank robbery isn’t about money. It’s stupid to say such a stupid thing.

  12. Couple issues here.

    1. It’s a stupid comment/tactic by Working Washington.
    2. Seattle can levy any (legal) taxes they want and also have to accept the benefits/risks.
    3. The proposed tax ($500/per employee) is for all companies that make $20M or more, so it includes many other businesses besides Amazon.

    But let’s be outraged because. . . I dunno. . . .

    1. But let’s be outraged because it is REALLY, REALLY STUPID.

    2. 3. Isn’t a legal tax.

  13. Statute purports to outlaw democracy.

  14. Isn’t Working Washington itself violating the law by threatening Amazon with enforcement?

    Law itself (as Justice Holmes famously wrote) consists essentially of threats to impose penalties if people do certain actions. So it would seem that not merely any sort of law enforcement, but even putting laws onto statute books, violates the ordinance as Working Washington defines it.

    1. Justice Holmes, while pithy, was a racist, sexist dick.

      1. there is something wrong with you that you would think that relevant to his question

  15. So government gets to threaten to sever your testes after they promised not to, and will jail you if you squeak and try to run away if they continue to squeeze the scissors?

    1. Interesting analogy.
      Are revenues truly the balls of a corporation?

      Could be.

  16. A quick Google search shows that Washington doesn’t have a strong anti-SLAPP statute. If it did, would that be an effective defense for Amazon?

  17. Ah, you apparently aren’t familiar with the Soviet Socialist Republic of Seattle…

    1. Yeah, did’nt they just get rid of the statue of Lenin, or is it still there?

      1. In a less fraught time and place, a surplus Lenin statue could be humorous.

        One of the classic poses was Lenin with arm upraised, sometimes nicknamed “Lenin hailing a taxi.” In the immediate euphoria of the end of the Cold War, I thought it would be a neat idea to acquire 3 of those surplus Lenin “taxi” statues and use them to mark the three cabstands at our city airport. (But I did nothing to push the idea.)

  18. How many of you are old enough to remember when the National Organization of Women (NOW) organized economic boycotts of the convention facilities of cities and states which had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment? Can you imagine the howling from the left if some of these States (like Missouri) had brought criminal charges against NOW and its officers under a similar law?

    1. Why go back that far? We are only two years removed from the massive boycotts of North Carolina over transgendered bathrooms. Imagine if the NBA, NCAA, State of New York, and 3/4 of the entertainers in Hollywood had been arrested and charged under a law similar to WashingtonS.

  19. “It’s the sort of thing you might expect from a subprime mob boss lording it over a company town?and that’s not just a metaphor.”

    What, exactly, is a “subprime mob?” How does one become its “boss?” And what do they have to do with “Company towns?”

    Talk about a mixed-metaphor word salad.

  20. Anyone know how many members of ‘working washington’ are actually employed at a for profit company?

  21. This interpretation would have outlawed the 1956 boycott of the Selma, Alabama bus system, one of the seminal events of the Civil Rights movement.

  22. So don’t threaten to leave. Just leave.

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  24. I still question Western Washington on the $54 Billion PLUS they are going to spend on a railway that only a few will us. I guess they need to virtue signal their fellow progressives that they are doing what they think is the right thing to do. Could that $54 Billion be used for making a better community? Yes, yes it could!

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