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CNN Legal Quagmire After Identifying Reddit User Who Created Trump Wrestling Meme

July 6th 2017

CNN

CNN threatened to destroy a Reddit user who created a video that President Donald Trump tweeted last week. The network was quite open in what it proposes to do if Reddit user “HanAssholeSolo” should violate an agreement with CNN. In print, CNN issued a threat that may galvanize further resentment against a news source that is increasingly seen by Trump’s supporters as unreliable at best and probably biased.

The video, a gif, featured footage from Trump's pre-politician days when he grappled at ringside with WWE founder Vince McMahon. To this was added a CNN logo superimposed on McMahon's face.

Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., issued a tweet of his own on July 5, suggesting “If only CNN spent as much time tracking down info on IRS targeting, Fast and Furious, Iran deal, etc as they did a meme writer!” CNN and several Congressional Democrats claimed that the video was either a threat of violence or an encouragement of violence against the network and the media in general. 

CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski wrote: “CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.” However, complicating matters, Kaczynski later released identifying information about the person who created the meme. In response to those who believe that the poster is a teenager, Kaczynski issued several tweets identifying the poster as someone “nowhere near 15.”

Transparency crusader Julian Assange tweeted on July 4 that CNN may have violated § 135.60 of the New York criminal code that penalizes “coercion.” The law states:

"A person is guilty of coercion in the second degree when he or she compels or induces a person to engage in conduct which the latter has a legal right to abstain from engaging in, or to abstain from engaging in conduct in which he or she has a legal right to engage, or compels or induces a person to join a group, organization or criminal enterprise which such latter person has a right to abstain from joining, by means of instilling in him or her a fear that, if the demand is not complied with, the actor or another will: 1. Cause physical injury to a person; or 2. Cause damage to property; or 3. Engage in other conduct constituting a crime; or 4. Accuse some person of a crime or cause criminal charges to be instituted against him or her; or 5. Expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject some person to hatred, contempt or ridicule; or 6. Cause a strike, boycott or other collective labor group action injurious to some person's business; except that such a threat shall not be deemed coercive when the act or omission compelled is for the benefit of the group in whose interest the actor purports to act; or 7. Testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another's legal claim or defense; or 8. Use or abuse his or her position as a public servant by performing some act within or related to his or her official duties, or by failing or refusing to perform an official duty, in such manner as to affect some person adversely; or 9. Perform any other act which would not in itself materially benefit the actor but which is calculated to harm another person materially with respect to his or her health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships. Coercion in the second degree is a class A misdemeanor."

However, CNN may also have to contend with entanglement with federal law. At issue is whether the following statement by CNN reporter Kaczynski constitutes extortion: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.” At issue also is the implied threat by CNN to release further information about the Reddit user should he violate an agreement with the network. Here follows a citation of a federal statute: "18 U.S. Code § 241 – Conspiracy against rights. If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same; or If two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured— They shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, they shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death." 

In response to CNN’s actions, the Twitter tag #CNNBlackmail became the leading trend on Twitter on July 5. In other responses, there is a growing movement to boycott CNN advertisers. After President Trump tweeted the meme of a doctored video that showed him wrestling a figure over whose face the CNN logo was superimposed, CNN began to investigate the Reddit user who devised the gif video.

Despite disavowals that the network had subsequently threatened to reveal the Reddit user’s personal information, CNN morning anchor Chris Cuomo may have verified that the network had indeed issued a threat. On Wednesday, at approximately 7 a.m. Cuomo tweeted: "Should CNN reveal name of Reddit user who made Trump wrestling video? Had a lot of bigoted and hateful material on page and website." However, Cuomo soon deleted the tweet. Subsequently, he tweeted an explanation: “We know the age [of the Reddit user]. Deleted tweet because this not a simple tweet discussion: How to handle an apology? When expose someone? Is clip the issue?”

Alisyn Camerota and Cuomo on CNN’s New Day addressed on Wednesday the apology the network managed to wrest from HanAssholeSolo for the video. Camerota said: "Something remarkable I thought happened yesterday, I thought it was remarkable that CNN found the Reddit user who created the gif of Donald Trump and the wrestling video and where he punches CNN, so the investigative team went back and found the guy who first created this he took credit for it, and then here comes the remarkable part, he apologized. He apologized for having done this." Cuomo then remarked, "This is a very full-throated I think genuine honest apology. He has also asked we not reveal his name or whereabouts and we at CNN are honoring that."

Among other political commenters, Dave Rubin accused CNN of extorting a private citizen for the legal behavior. Donald Trump Jr. retweeted the accusation. Rubin tweeted: "Don't make a gif or CNN will tell on you!" Camerota claimed that HanAssholeSolo asked CNN to keep him anonymous. "Honestly, the reason I think this is so notable, Chris Cillizza, is because this is a very full-throated I think genuine honest apology," Camerota said. "He has also asked we not reveal his name or whereabouts and we at CNN are honoring that because he's apologized and he thinks he would then be in danger and at risk if other people knew his name. We get it. We understand that. So I don't know, I just think that this is just a very interesting addendum to this whole story."

"It was certainly not the outcome I would have thought once we tracked him down. You know, and I think it's actually a nice thing," political analyst Cillizza said of CNN. Making a jab at the Trump administration, Cillizza claimed that the story that will be “overshadowed” is whether the White House is concealing where Trump obtained the wrestling gif. Cillizza said, "It was certainly not the outcome I would have thought once we tracked him down. You know, and I think it's actually a nice thing. I would remind people, unless I'm mistaken, I saw quotes coming out of the White House over the weekend saying, this -- Donald Trump did not get this image from Reddit. So, where did it come from? I mean, you know, I hate to say it, I think it's almost certain he did, but then why is the White House saying he didn't. I mean, you know, this, you know, this -- I took, sorry, Alisyn, I took a nice thing, which is a guy at least being willing to say I shouldn't have done this."

Cuomo added, "When exposed and identified he then decided to apologize for multiple entries on his account."

"Good enough," Camerota said. "But the point is, why is the White House on the record saying that's not where he got it from?" Cillizza asked. "I mean, he had it from somewhere, right? I mean Donald Trump didn't build that gif. I hope. I hope he has better things to do." "So it came from somewhere. And if this guy is saying yeah, I did it, and it's me, I shouldn't have done it, then why is the White House saying, nope, that's not it. Where did it come from? I mean, I this is going to get overshadowed and probably rightly so, frankly, the G-20, North Korea... but it is just one of the many logical inconsistencies that come out of the White House that there's so many, frankly, that it's hard to cover them all," Cillizza said.

CNN's critics have started tweeting their own gifs, featuring the network logo in what is becoming a torrent of criticism. Among them was Trump supporter Kim Dotcom. 


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