Dan Abrams: Bezos allegations 'kind of extortion-y' but may not fit legal definition

ABC News Chief Legal Analyst Dan Abrams and Harvard Law Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz debate the potential legal fallout as prosecutors review Jeff Bezos' extortion allegations against AMI.
7:25 | 02/10/19

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Transcript for Dan Abrams: Bezos allegations 'kind of extortion-y' but may not fit legal definition
Thank you very much. We'll bring in Dan Abrams and Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor. Dan, your reaction. What do we see here? There are a number of issues here. First of all, you heard Mr. Abramowitz talking about the fact that the story was already out there. That's not the question. We know that the story was already out there. The pictures weren't out there, so the question is, was this a clear threat to say, unless you say what we want you to say, we're going to publish these photos that you don't want out there? So saying that the story is out there doesn't really change the discussion. Then he says well, you know, we just wanted the truth. The way you get the truth is youeah. You can go back and forth and say, we think what you are saying is untrue and libellous and we'll sue you, et cetera. It gets close to this edge. My position is this is kind of extortion-y. It's kind of blackmail-y, but it may not necessarily be the legal definition of extortion or blackmail. Alan, is there a first amendment defense here? There is. The first amendment needs breathing room. This is a fight between two media moguls. There was a negotiation. It was a tough negotiation. I'm certainly not here to defend the journalistic ethics of "The national enquirer," but the first amendment doesn't distinguish between "The Washington post," ABC news, and "The national enquirer." The first amendment needs breathing room. Adelaide Stephenson said to one of his opponents, I promise to -- if you promise to stop telling lies about me, I will promise to stop telling the truth about you. You need breathing room here, and I agree with Dan that you need to draw a line between what is extortionish and what is extortion consistent with the rst amendment. I think this -- You guys are both the lawyers. I'm hesitant to practice on television, but I lothe code and let me start this with you. The code against extortion says basically you can't threaten something in return for something of value. Renouncing the legal claims and saying it wasn't pically motivated, isn't that a thing of value? It could be, and they, you know, you could argue that it was reat, but it's not that clear, right? It's right on that line where prosecutors are going to evaluate, was this actually a threat, and was this a thing of value? I'll say in response to what Alan is talking about about the first amendment, extortion is always about words. You knowpically when someone extorts someone else, they're using words. You don't say, nothing that I say can be deemed to be a crime. There are based on words and that's what extortion is. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the fact that we're dealing with media here, and remember too that the alleged extortion occurred in a letter from a lawyer. I have been practicing law for over 50 years and I have never seen an extortion come ie form of a lawyer. That's not accurate. If there was going to be extortion here, it would be the letter from the chief -- from the chief officer of extortion. Don't get extortion by mail. The important thing is whether or not the statute can be construed, but it's whether the first amendment would permit that, and I think it's important to give the first amendment the breathing room. It's not the first time in our history this has happened. Do you remember the story of Thomas Jefferson and James Callander? He was "The national enquirer" of 1800, and constantly engaged in threats. He threatened Jefferson and Adams, but we had a first amendment. He was arrested under the alienist extradition act and then Jefferson pardoned him. We have to give breathing room to the first amendment when there are any doubts about whether extortion applies. You resolve those in favor of freedom of the press. Let bezos fight and argue in the public. Let him release his posts. Let the other side argue, but let's not get prosecutors investigating how journalists operate because that endangers the freedoms under the first amendment. Yeah, but the fact that American media is a media entity does not immunize them from the types of crimes we're talking about here. Again, I'm not saying that it is a crime, but I'm saying this notion because it's a fight between two media entities, it means that the laws are different. Just doesn't -- It doesn't make sense. Not when itletters to one another in terms of threatening. It doesn't. It does. Let me tell you why. If newspapers are stolen materials and puthem like wikis or any of the other things, if any of us did that, we might be guilty of crimes, but when journalists do it, there is a certain exception that applies under the first amendment. To you have to look at every statute on the books and you have to ask yourself, how does this fit into the theory of the first amendment? Justice Brennan alway wrote about breathing room and how you have to interpret statutes narrowly when it comes to concerns. When you have a media that is publishing material, then you have to ask yourself the question, what precedent will this havtoday it's "The national enquirer." Tomorrow it could be "The new York Times" or ABC news. Precedents established on bad guys get applied to good guys. That's why we need to rigorously apply the first amendment. That's true, except when "The New York Times" and ABC start threatening to publish nude pictures, is this a journalistic entity before? I have been threatened by journalists who say, unless you give me an interview or response to this, we will publish this or we will publish that. Hardball threats by journalists are fairly common today and particularly by journalists like "The national enquirer." You don't want to put "The national enquirer" out of business. It is not a good day for the first amendment for that. It wouldn't be if they went out of business. We're out of time, but I have to ask one question. Doesn't it change this at all? Doesn't the fact that they admitted in that southern district cooperation agreement they were acting as agents and not as journalists, but agents of president trump? Doesn't that color this at all? An be both. A lot of newspapers were started as party newspapers. Newspapers for particular political parties. You can both be an agent if that's true and be exercising your first amendment right. You don't want to be an agent of someone and committing a potential crime in that context. That's different. The first amendment doesn't protect crimes, Alan. It doesn't protect -- It construes what a crime means. It can. It can. It doesn't interpret whether or not a statute is criminal and you resolve all doubts in favor of the first amendment. You started out by saying is ambiguous. It is. That's the end of it. If it's ambiguous, prosecutors shouldn't be looking into it and or hurting the first amendment. They should be looking into it and we'll see what they decide. That is not the end of the debate. Thanfor those contributions. When we come back, what is

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