Extortion or Voluntary Exchange

Last month, Autumn Jackson was convicted of extortion, con- spiracy, and crossing state lines to commit a crime. When sentenced in October, she faces up to 12 years in prison and a fine up to $750,000. Miss Jackson's in hot water because she demanded $40 million from Cosby in exchange for her silence about being his illegitimate daughter. We don't know whether Miss Jackson is telling the truth or not, but how just is the law she violated?

Imagine you catch me leaving a hotel with a young lady who's obviously not Mrs. Williams. You proposition, "Williams, rights guaranteed me under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, allow me to tell the world about your affair, eliminating any chance you have to become the nation's first black President." Let's stop here and ask: have you done anything immoral or wicked? I think not. You are simply stating a human right protected by our Constitution.

Then you say, "I'll tell you what. If you give me $10,000, I will not exercise that right." Now the ball is in my court. I must decide whether to forego any presidential aspirations, plus risk Mrs. Williams going upside my head. Or, I could fork over $10,000 for your not exercising your God-given right to spill the beans. It's simply a choice where I decide which is more valuable: giving up $10,000 and retaining my presidential chances and no attacks from Mrs. Williams, or keeping my $10,000 and suffering the consequences. Let's stop again. Has there been any coercion or violence involved? It's simply a take it or leave it proposition not unlike others we make everyday. You promise to do something good for me (not tell) if I do something good for you (fork over 10 grand). It's just like my human right, protected by the Constitution, to sleep and watch television all day. George Mason University's president in effect says, "Williams, if you don't exercise your right to sleep and watch television all day, and teach instead, I will give you so-many thousands of dollars each year." Would you call that extortion? Of course not; he's simply offering to do something good for me if I do something good for him.

I am hoping that Autumn Jackson's lawyers appeal the decision and make the argument that she was exercising her First Amendment rights, in offering the $40 million deal and Bill Cosby was exercising his rights by not accepting it. Whether we like the proposed deal or not, applying the notion of extortion to the Jackson/Cosby case is unjust.

You say, "She might be lying and Cosby's reputation will suffer." That's a non-issue for at least two reasons. Whether she's lying or not, if people believe her, Cosby's reputation suffers. But more importantly, reputations consist entirely of what others think of you. Bill Cosby does not own his reputation unless you're willing to argue that my thoughts and opinions about Cosby are his property. Jackson has the right to influence my opinion of Cosby.

We should worry about extortion when physical threats are involved. If we did, our attention would shift to the U.S. Congress. Think about their retirement and healthcare programs. They tell us: either you "contribute" to Social Security and Medicare or we'll take your property, put you in jail and, if you resist, we've authorized our agents to use violence. If Autumn Jackson had offered Bill Cosby such a proposition, I'd be the first to say, "Jail her for life!"

Walter E. Williams

August 3, 1997
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