Alex Jones faces a hefty price tag for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre – $49.3 million in damages, and counting, for claiming the deadliest school shooting was a hoax – a punitive volley in a fledgling war against harmful disinformation.
But what does this week’s verdict, the first of three Sandy Hook-related cases against Jones to adjudicate, mean for the wider ecosystem of disinformation, a social media-fueled world of election denial, COVID-19 skepticism and other dubious claims? who helped build the Infowars conspiracy theorist?
“I think a lot of people see this as some sort of battle against fake news, and it’s important to realize that the libel law deals with a very specific kind of fake news,” said Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment professor at UCLA School of Medicine. the rights.
U.S. courts have long ruled that defamatory statements — falsehoods that damage the reputation of an individual or company — are not protected as free speech, but lies about other subjects, such as science, history, or government, are. For example, saying COVID-19 isn’t real isn’t defamatory, but spreading lies about a doctor treating coronavirus patients is.
That distinction is why Jones, who attacked the parents of Sandy Hook victims and claimed the 2012 shooting was staged with actors to increase gun control, is being forced to pay while Holocaust deniers, flat-earthers and vaccine skeptics are free to post their theories without much fear of a multimillion-dollar court sentence.
“Alex Jones attacked individuals,” said Stephen D. Solomon, a law professor and founder of New York University’s First Amendment Watch. “And that’s important. A lot of disinformation does not attack individuals.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, the parents of one of 20 first-graders killed at the Connecticut school in 2012, said they hoped a big-money verdict against Jones would act as a deterrent to him and others spreading misinformation for profit. .
“I ask you to take the megaphone away from Alex Jones and anyone else who believes they can benefit from fear and misinformation,” Wesley Ball said in his closing statement on Friday. “The gold rush of fear and misinformation must end, and it must end today.”
Jones, who has since acknowledged that the shooting was real, claimed his statements about Sandy Hook were protected by the First Amendment. He even came to court with “Save the 1st” scribbled on a piece of tape over his mouth.
But despite the public theaters, Jones has never been able to make that argument in court. After Jones failed to comply with the order to hand over critical evidence, a judge entered a default judgment for the plaintiffs and immediately skipped the penalty phase.
Jones’ attorney Andino Reynal told the jury during closing arguments that a major verdict would have a chilling effect on people seeking to hold governments accountable.
“You’ve already sent a message. First notice to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that their standard of care needs to change,” Reynal told the judges.
Free speech experts say any chilling effect should be limited to people who willfully spread false information, not to journalists or other citizens trying in good faith to get to the truth.
“You have to look at this particular case and ask yourself, what exactly are you chilling out?” said Solomon.
“The kind of speech that slanders parents who have lost their children in a massacre may be the kind of speech you want to deter. You’ll want to chill that speech,” said Solomon. “That’s the message the jury may have wanted to send here, that this is unacceptable in a civilized society.”
As for Jones, Reynal said he’s not leaving anytime soon. He remains on the air as they appeal the verdict, one of the largest and most high profile defamation decisions in recent years.
Among others: a hornet ordered in February to pay $50 million to a South Carolina mayor after accusing her in emails of committing a crime and being unfit for office; a former tenant ordered in 2016 to pay $38.3 million for posting a website accusing a real estate investor of running a Ponzi scheme; and a New Hampshire mortgage lender ordered in 2017 to pay $274 million to three businessmen after he posted billboards accusing them of drug trafficking and racketeering.
“These kinds of damages and judgments have a chilling effect,” Volokh said. “They are meant to have a chilling effect on lies that damage people’s reputations.”
Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak
Find TUSEN’s full coverage of the Alex Jones trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/alex-jones