Alex Jones is facing a heavy price for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — $49.3 million in damages and countingfor the claim that the nation’s deadliest school attack was a hoax — a retribution in a new war on harmful misinformation.
But what does this week’s verdict mean?the first of three Sandy Hook-related cases against Jones to be trieddoes it mean for the larger disinformation ecosystem, a world fueled by social media of election denial, COVID-19 skepticism and other dubious claims that the Infowars conspiracy theorist helped create?
“I think a lot of people think of this as kind of a blow against fake news, and it’s important to realize that defamation law deals with a very specific kind of fake news,” said Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment professor at UCLA. Law School.
US courts have long held that defamatory statements – falsehoods that damage the reputation of a person or business – are not protected as free speech, but lies about other subjects, such as science, history, or government, are. For example, saying that COVID-19 isn’t real isn’t defamatory, but spreading lies about a doctor treating coronavirus patients is.
This distinction is why Jones, who attacked the parents of the Sandy Hook victims and claimed that 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 publish their theories without much fear of a court order from many million dollars.
“Alex Jones attacked peoplesaid Stephen D. Solomon, New York University law professor and founding editor of First Amendment Watch. “And that’s important. A lot of misinformation doesn’t attack individuals.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs, the parents of one of the 20 first-graders killed at the Connecticut school in 2012, said they hoped a large-money verdict against Jones would act as a deterrent to him and others who spread misinformation about profit.
“I’m asking you to take the bullhorn off Alex Jones and everyone else who thinks they can profit from fear and misinformation,” Wesley Ball said in his closing remarks 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, has argued that his statements about Sandy Hook were protected by the First Amendment. He even appeared in court with “Save the 1st” etched on a piece of tape over his mouth.
But despite the public theatrics, Jones was never able to make that argument in court. After Jones failed to comply with orders to turn over critical evidence, a judge entered a default judgment for the plaintiffs and went straight to the punishment phase.
Jones’ lawyer, Antino Reynal, told the jury during closing arguments that a major trial would have a chilling effect on people seeking to hold governments accountable.
“You have already sent a message. A message for the first time to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that their standard of care needs to change,” Reynal told jurors.
Free-speech experts say any chilling effect should be limited to people who deliberately spread false information, not journalists or other citizens making good-faith efforts to understand the truth of an issue.
“You have to look at the specific case and ask yourself, what exactly are you cringing at?” said Solomon.
“The kind of speech that vilifies parents who lost their children in a massacre is probably the kind of speech you want to prevent. You want to relax this speech,” Solomon said. “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 won’t be leaving anytime soon. It will remain up in the air while they appeal the verdict, one of the biggest and most high-profile defamation rulings in recent years.
Among other things: a fly was ordered in February to pay $50 million to a South Carolina mayor after he accused her in an email of committing a crime and being unfit for office. a former tenant was ordered in 2016 to pay $38.3 million for publishing a website that accused a real estate investor of running a Ponzi scheme. and a New Hampshire mortgage lender was ordered in 2017 to pay $274 million to three businessmen after posting billboards accusing them of drug dealing and extortion.
“These damages and verdicts do have a chilling effect,” Volokh said. “Their purpose is to have a chilling effect on lies that damage people’s reputations.”
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Find complete AP coverage of the Alex Jones trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/alex-jones