Alex Jones faces a heavy price for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre – $49.3 million in damages, still goingto claim that the shooting of the deadliest school in the country was a hoax – a punitive barrage in a nascent war on harmful disinformation.
But what does the referee do this week?The first three cases related to Sandy Hook v. Jones will be settledyou mean for the larger ecosystem of disinformation, a social media-fueled world of election denial, suspicions about COVID-19 and other shady claims that Infowars conspiracy theorists helped build?
“I think a lot of people think of this as some kind of blow against fake news, and it’s important to realize that defamation law deals with a very special kind of fake news,” said Eugene Voloch, a professor of the First Amendment at the University of California. School of Law.
US courts have long held that defamatory statements – lies that damage the reputation of a person or a company – are not protected as freedom of expression., but lies about other subjects, such as science, history, or government, are. For example, saying that COVID-19 is not real is not defamatory, but spreading lies about a doctor treating coronavirus patients is.
This distinction is why Jones, who attacked the parents of Sandy Hook victims He claimed that the 2012 shootings were orchestrated with actors to increase gun control, being forced to pay while Holocaust deniers, pessimists and vaccine skeptics are free to publish their theories without much fear of a multimillion-dollar court ruling.
Alex Jones was attacking peoplesaid Stephen D. Solomon, professor of law and founding editor of First Amendment Watch at New York University. “And this is important. A lot of misinformation does not attack individuals.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, the parents of one of 20 first-graders killed at a Connecticut school in 2012, said they hope a big-money verdict against Jones will act as a deterrent to him and others selling misinformation for profit.
“I am asking you to take the trumpet away from Alex Jones and all the others who think they can profit from fear and misinformation,” Wesley Ball said in his closing argument Friday. “The gold rush of fear and misinformation must end, and it must end today.”
Jones, who has since admitted that the shooting was realHe claimed that his statements about Sandy Hook are protected by the First Amendment. He even came to court with “Save the 1st” written on a piece of tape over his mouth.
But despite public theatrical performances, Jones never had to put this argument to court. After Jones failed to comply with orders to turn over crucial evidence, the judge entered into a default judgment for the plaintiffs and skipped the right to the penalty stage.
Jones’ attorney, Andino Renal, told the jury during closing arguments that a large sentencing would have a chilling effect on people seeking to hold governments accountable.
“I’ve already sent a message. A message for the first time to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that their level of care should change,” Raynal told jurors.
Free speech experts say any chilling effect should be limited to people who arbitrarily spread false information, not journalists or other citizens who are making well-intentioned efforts to get to the bottom of the matter.
“You have to look at this particular case and ask yourself, what exactly is this chilling?” Solomon said.
Perhaps the kind of talk that discredits parents who lost their children in a massacre is the type of talk you want to deter. Solomon said. “That’s the message the jury probably wanted to send here, which is that this is not acceptable in a civilized society.”
As for Jones, Rinal said he’s not going away anytime soon. He will remain on the air while appealing the ruling, one of the largest and most notable decisions in a libel case in recent years.
Among others: gadfly was ordered in February to pay $50 million to the mayor of South Carolina after she was accused in emails of a crime and ineligibility for office; A former tenant in 2016 was ordered to pay $38.3 million for posting a website accusing a real estate investor of running a Ponzi scheme; A New Hampshire mortgage provider in 2017 ordered three businessmen to pay $274 million after they posted billboards accusing them of drug dealing and racketeering.
“These kinds of damages and judgments have a frightening effect,” Volokh said. “It’s supposed to have a chilling effect on lies that damage people’s reputations.”
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