The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Threat of "Social Media Stink" = Civil Extortion

So holds the Iowa Court of Appeals.


A bit more from Hoffman v. Clark (follow the link for more details on the case, in which most of the verdict related to the libel claims):

The jury awarded Hoffmann Innovations $250,000 for its civil-extortion claim against Scott. This claim was based on Scott's statement to Hoffmann that he would make a "social media stink" if Hoffmann Innovations did not pay him a severance.

In a taped phone call of when Clark was terminated, the recording captures Clark confirming he would "go away" if he could get a severance payment. He insinuated that there might be a "public mayhem" if he were to get "pissed off." The payment would come with his "promise" he would not blow up, followed by another promise to "get off social media." On appeal, Clark argues Hoffmann "presented no evidence to support an award of damages for the claim of civil extortion." We disagree.

The jury was instructed the elements of extortion included

1. A person commits extortion if the person does any of the following with the purpose of obtaining for oneself or another anything of value, tangible or intangible, including labor or services:
a. Threatens to inflict physical injury on some person, or to commit any public offense;
b. Threatens to accuse another of a public offense;
c. Threatens to expose any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule;
d. Threatens to harm the credit of a business or professional reputation of any person; or
e. Threatens to wrongfully injure the property of another.

Clark's only challenge to the jury instruction was, "I don't believe there's a prima facie case of extortion." Clark did not object to the form of the instruction, therefore, it becomes the law of the case. So with this instruction in mind, a jury could find Clark threatened "to expose [Hoffman] to hatred, contempt, or ridicule" and "to harm the credit of a business or professional reputation of [Hoffman and his business]." As other support of this message of threats, Clark also contacted Hoffman's business associate directing him to convince Hoffman to drop the civil case or Clark would attempt to stop the sale of the products that both Hoffman and the business associate profited from by contacting multiple governmental agencies and racing bodies.

In his own words, Clark knew he had the power to hurt a business over social media. After he was fired but before he started regularly attacking Hoffmann, Clark was in contact with Hoffmann Innovation's technical support and engineering supervisor, asking about another company that Clark believed may have copied Hoffmann's product. Clark told the supervisor, "Well, just let me know if the attorn[eys] can't do anything worthwhile. Because I could make a single post on FB about it and wipe them out. Lemme know what [Hoffmann] wants to do about it i.e. if you need the Court of Social Media." When the supervisor responded that Hoffmann was out of town, Clark responded, "I will contain my vengeance, but you let me know it's time to open a can of Fuck Them." Substantial evidence supported the attempt to extort. "[G]eneric" extortion is defined as "obtaining something of value from another with his consent induced by the wrongful use of force, fear, or threats." Scheidler v. Nat'l Org. for Women, Inc. (2003).

Note that extortion, unlike libel, isn't limited to false allegations; threatening to reveal even accurate information unless the target pays (or does something else the threatener demands) can be punishable. For more on how the law draws the line between civilly actionable (and even criminally punishable) extortion and constitutionally protected speech, see this post.