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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Alex Jones’ $49.3M verdict and the future of misinformation

Alex Jones is facing a heavy price for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre – $49.3 million in damages, and counting, for claiming the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax – damagingly wrong. A punishing salvo in a fledgling war on information.

But what this week’s decision means is the first of three Sandy Hook-related cases to be decided against Jones, meant for the larger misinformation ecosystem, a social media-fueled election world, amid COVID-19. Skepticism and other dubious claims that the Infowars conspiracy theorist helped build?

Eugene Volokh, First Amendment professor at UCLA, said, “I think a lot of people are thinking of this as a blow against fake news, and it’s important to realize that defamation law deals with a specific type of fake news.” ” school of Law.

U.S. courts have long held that defamatory statements — lies that damage the reputation of a person or business — are not as protected as free speech, but lie about other subjects such as science, history or government. For example, to say that COVID-19 is not real is not defamation, but to spread lies about a doctor treating coronavirus patients.

That’s 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-Earths and vaccine skeptics are free to post their theories. Without the fear of a multimillion-dollar court ruling.

“Alex Jones was attacking individuals,” said Stephen D., a law professor and founding editor of New York University’s First Amendment Watch. Solomon said. “And that’s important. A lot of propaganda doesn’t 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 serve as a deterrent to him and others who Gives false information for profit.

“I am asking you to steer clear of bullhorns from Alex Jones and everyone else who believes they can profit from fear and misinformation,” Wesley Ball said in his closing argument on Friday. “The gold rush of fear and misinformation must end, and it must end today.”

Jones, who has since admitted that the shooting was real, has claimed that his statements about Sandy Hook were protected by the First Amendment. He even posed in court with “Save the 1” on a piece of tape over his mouth.

But despite the public theatrics, Jones never got to make that argument in court. After failing to comply with Jones’ orders to hand over vital evidence, a judge entered a default judgment for the plaintiffs and waived the right to stage the sentencing.

Jones’ lawyer Andino Renal told the jury during closing arguments that a major decision would have a chilling effect on people seeking to hold the government 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 has to change,” Renal told the jurors.

Free speech experts say any chilling effect should be limited to those who spread misinformation, not journalists or other citizens who are making good efforts to get to the truth of a matter.

“You have to look at this particular case and ask yourself what exactly are you doing?” Solomon said.

“The kind of speech that defames parents who lost their children in a genocide is probably the kind of speech you want to stop. You want to silence that speech,” Solomon said. “That’s the message that potentially the jury wanted to send here, that this is unacceptable in a civilized society.”

As for Jones, Renal said he isn’t going away any time soon. He will be up in the air as long as he appeals against the decision, which is one of the largest and high-profile rulings in a defamation case in recent years.

Among others: a gadfly ordered to pay $50 million in February to the mayor of South Carolina after accusing him in an email of committing a crime and being disqualified for office; A former tenant ordered to pay $38.3 million in 2016 for posting a website accusing a real estate investor of running a Ponzi scheme; And a New Hampshire mortgage provider ordered three businessmen to pay $274 million in 2017 after they posted billboards accusing them of drug dealing and extortion.

“Such losses and decisions have a chilling effect,” Volokh said. “Their intent is to have a chilling effect on lies that damage people’s reputations.”


Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak


See full coverage of Associated Press’s Alex Jones trial here: https://apnews.com/hub/alex-jones

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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