This website has posted a few articles about the consequences of defamation. But what about the consequences of the threat of defaming someone?
It is unfortunately not uncommon for people-particularly Internet business owners-to be targeted by an individual or group of individuals who threaten to defame those people if payment is not made to those threatening defamation.
Although defamation is a civil wrong, and can be sued for by the affected party in civil court, the threat of defamation in exchange for payment or other goods or services is a criminal offence in the State of Arizona.
Section 13-1804 of the Arizona Revised Statutes provides that, among other things, a person commits theft or extortion by knowingly obtaining or seeking to obtain property or services by means of a threat to:
- Accuse anyone of a crime or bring criminal charges against anyone;
- Expose a secret or an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject anyone to hatred, contempt or ridicule or to impair the person’s credit or business; or
- Take or withhold action as a public servant or cause a public servant to take or withhold action.
Interestingly, all of these situations, except for exposing a false asserted fact, can usually be done legally when not related to extortion. For example, truthfully accusing someone of a crime, publishing truthful words which impair another’s credit or business, and taking a lawful action as a public servant are all completely legal-it’s the threat of doing so with the expectation of receiving property or services in return which makes a completely lawful act into a criminal act. For our purposes, though, we will simply focus on the issue of extortion as it relates to defamation.
DEFENCES TO EXTORTION
The Arizona Revises Statutes provides that it is an affirmative defense to a prosecution for extortion relating to the above-described threats where the property obtained by the threat was lawfully claimed either as:
- Restitution or indemnification for harm done under circumstances to which the accusation, exposure, lawsuit or other official act relates or;
- Compensation for property that was lawfully obtained or for lawful services.
Here are a couple hypothetical situations explaining how these defenses might work. These should not be taken as a statement of the law as it relates to you, and you should consult with a qualified attorney before engaging in any similar acts.
Adam steals Bob’s car. Bob threatens to report Adam to the police if the car is not returned to Bob. Although threatening to report someone for a crime in exchange for property (the car) would normally be extortion, Bob is not guilty because the property being claimed is “restitution for harm done under circumstances to which the accusation” of criminal activity would relate. He could also use the second defense available for extortion, in that he is claiming compensation for property that was lawfully obtained by him.
Charlie pays Doug some money for services, and believes that Doug has breached the contract. Charlie threatens to post false allegations on the Internet that Doug stole a car from a war hero and used it to run over a child’s puppy, if Doug does not pay Ethan the money that Charlie believes he is owed.
Even though Charlie may be entitled to restitution, the restitution for Doug’s failure to meet his end of the contract is not related to the threatened defamatory allegation related to veteran-robbing and puppy-killing. Therefore, there is no defense to this threat and Charlie would be guilty of extorting Doug.
The above examples are by no means complete or assured to be applicable to your circumstances, but they should give an idea of how the law of extortion is applied in Arizona. If you have concerns about whether your may be guilty of extortion relating to a threatened defamatory statement, or if someone is threatening to defame you, contact a qualified defamation attorney.