Alex Jones was a poor case for First Amendment protection, and he was told so unequivocally with the $49.3 million judgment a Texas jury leveled against him last week.
Jones and his Infowars website traffic in wacko conspiracy theories, peddling what he knows to be lies as a way to attract ultraright-wing zealots and profit off of their gullibility.
Although such an approach is journalistically despicable, it’s not actionable until real people are harmed by the lies.
That was the case proven against Jones in one of his more notorious falsehoods, his claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut was a hoax designed to promote a gun-control agenda.
It’s incredible that some people believed that nonsense, given the overwhelming national coverage — in newspapers, on television, on reputable websites — of the horrendous mass shooting that took the lives of 20 young students and six teachers. On the face of that overwhelming evidence, Jones’ ranting on his radio show and on his website was preposterous.
But some people obviously did believe him, and when Jones called out parents by name, claiming they were crisis actors and part of the conspiracy, he not only added to their personal grief but he made them targets of some of his crazed listeners and readers.
Two of those parents, who were awarded last week the multimillion-dollar damage award, said Jones made their life more of a living hell than it already would have been in dealing with the loss of their 6-year-old son. They testified to a decade of threats and harassment they suffered, all fueled by Jones’ abuse of the media platform he commanded.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long established that the free speech guarantees provided by the First Amendment are broad but they are not unlimited. Not only journalists but anyone is liable for defaming a person by spreading information that the disseminator either knows to be false or for which the disseminator shows a reckless disregard for the truth.
Jones made no effort to defend the accuracy of what he reported. He couldn’t, as he acknowledged under oath that he knew the massacre was real. His only hope was that the jury would hit him with a token judgment.
It rightly decided otherwise.
Its $49.3 million judgment, more than 90% of which came in punitive damages, may be reduced on appeal. His lawyers say a Texas law would limit punitive damages to $1.5 million in this case. If they are right, that means instead of $49.3 million, the award would be more like $5.6 million.
Last week’s judgment, though, is not the end of Jones’ legal troubles. There are at least two other Sandy Hook defamation lawsuits for which damage awards are still pending
Jones has said that any verdict over $2 million could put him out of business. Let’s hope that’s not a lie as well.
The liquidation of his Infowars empire would send a valuable message to any others who attempt to get rich by trafficking in lies. You may get away with it for a while — Jones has been peddling his tripe since the 1990s, for example — but eventually it will catch up with you. When it does, don’t count on hiding behind the First Amendment.