Alex Jones’ $49.3M verdict and the future of misinformation
Alex Jones faces heavy price for lies about Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre – $49.3 million in damage and countingfor claiming the country’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax — a punitive salvo in a nascent war on harmful misinformation.
But what about this week’s verdict?the first of three Sandy Hook-related cases against Jones is pendingfor the larger misinformation ecosystem, means social media-fueled election denial, COVID-19 skepticism and other dubious claims that Infowars conspiracy theorists have helped build?
“I think a lot of people see this as a crackdown on fake news, and it’s important to realize that defamation law deals with a very specific kind of fake news,” said Eugene Warlock, a First Amendment professor at UCLA. law school.
U.S. courts have long held that defamatory speech — false information that damages a person’s or business’ reputation — is not protected by free speech, but lies about other disciplines, such as science, history or government, are. For example, saying that COVID-19 is not true is not defamation, but spreading lies about doctors treating coronavirus patients is defamation.
That distinction is why Jones attacked the parents of Sandy Hook victims And claiming that the 2012 shooting was staged with actors to tighten gun control, forced to pay the price, while Holocaust deniers, flat-earthers and vaccine skeptics were free to publish their theories without fear multi-million dollar court verdict.
“Alex Jones is attacking individuals,” said Stephen D. Solomon, a law professor and founding editor at NYU First Amendment Watch. “It’s important. Much disinformation 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 hoped the massive sentence against Jones would serve as a deterrent to him and others peddling misinformation for profit. people.
“I ask you to take the megaphone away from Alex Jones and all the others who believe they can profit from fear and misinformation,” Wesley Ball said in Friday’s closing debate. “The gold rush of fear and misinformation must end, and it must end today.”
Jones, who later admitted the shooting was real, claiming that his statements about Sandy Hook are protected by the First Amendment. He even appeared in court with “Save the first” scribbled on a piece of tape over his mouth.
But despite the public drama, Jones never made that argument in court. After Jones failed to comply with an order to hand over key evidence, a judge issued a default judgment against the plaintiff and jumped straight to the penalty phase.
Jones’ attorney, Andino Reynal, told the jury during the final argument that a major verdict would have a chilling effect on those seeking to hold the government accountable.
“You’ve messaged. For the first time, the message to talk show hosts and all talk show hosts that their standard of care must change,” Reiner told jurors.
Free speech experts say any chilling effect should be limited to those who wantonly spread disinformation, not journalists or other citizens who are working in good faith to find out the truth.
“You have to look at this particular case and ask yourself, what exactly are you afraid of?” Solomon said.
“The kind of speech that denigrates parents who lost their children in the Holocaust, maybe that’s the kind of speech you want to stop. You do want to calm down that speech,” Solomon said. “That’s probably the message the jury wanted to send, which is unacceptable in a civilized society.”
As for Jones, Reiner said he won’t be leaving anytime soon. He will continue to livestream while they appeal the verdict, one of the largest and most high-profile verdicts in a defamation case in recent years.
These include: A gadfly ordered in February to pay a South Carolina mayor $50 million for accusing her in an email of a crime and unfit for public office; a former tenant ordered to pay $38.3 million in 2016 dollar for posting a website accusing a real estate investor of a Ponzi scheme; a New Hampshire mortgage provider ordered three businessmen in 2017 after posting billboards accusing them of drug dealing and racketeering Paid $274 million.
“These kinds of damages and awards do have a chilling effect,” Warlock said. “They are designed to have a chilling effect on lies that damage people’s reputations.”
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Find The Associated Press’ full coverage of the Alex Jones trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/alex-jones