Why the Lawsuit Against Alex Jones Is a Step in the Right Direction
Everyone's favorite conspiracy theorist-next-door Alex Jones is being sued by the parents of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting. Leonard Pozner, and his ex wife Veronique De La Rosa, along with Neil Heslin, filed suit on Tuesday in Texas. Their children, Noah Pozner and Jesse Lewis respectively, were victims of the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The plaintiffs are seeking at least $1 million for Jones' alleged defamation against them. In an era of fake news, this is a major step forward, and should help discourage similar perpetrators, without threatening the First Amendment.
For those unfamiliar, Alex Jones is right-wing conspiracy theorist and founder of infowars.com. Through his site, he regularly drums up fabricated stories about everything from September 11th to the new world order. His greatest hits include the story about Hillary Clinton's campaign manager diddling kids in the back of a D.C. pizzeria (a story that has been debunked by numerous sources on both the left and right) and how yogurt maker Chobani was "importing migrant rapists" for labor in its factories.
Following the horrifying shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Jones took to the airwaves to concoct his typical white noise. His inflammatory comments began with him stating "it's got inside job written all over it." He then followed it up with "the Newtown kids [sic] boohoo. They take em put em in our face."
Obviously, Jones has as much credibility as Bernie Madoff. But what's startling is the number of people who readily accept InfoWars as a factual outlet. Following the release of the fabricated Pizzagate story, a South Carolinan walked into Comet Ping Pong, the restaurant in the center of the made up child sex ring, and starting firing his AR-15. No one was injured, but the shooting was followed by a Louisiana man making threatening phone calls to the pizzeria three days later.
The response to something so blatantly false is remarkable. With literally zero evidence, a stranger from 300 miles away took violent action to rectify an imaginary injustice. Jones was forced to retract the story, and apologize, but the damage was done.
InfoWars receives about 3.5 million unique visitors per month, most of whom lack college degrees. While small compared to other extremist sites (Breitbart receives around 45 million, while Drudge Report receives 20 and Alternet.org receives 1.6), it has shown to be painfully effective in the propagation of synthetic stories.
Fighting fake news however has proven far more difficult than disseminating it. Aided by a commander-in-chief who labels everyone and anyone who disagree's or challenges him as "fake news," individuals like Mr. Jones have been faced a growing audience for his maliciously false stories. But as we saw with Pizzagate, there are very real consequences to these types of narratives.
Since Alex Jones began his crusade to uncover the truth (or his inhibited version of it), the victims and survivors of Sandy Hook have undergone constant harassment by those who accept Jones' ideas. A professor from FAU was dismissed in December of 2015 after stating the shooting was a staged hoax, and last June, a Florida woman was sentenced to prison after making death threats towards the parents of Sandy Hook victims.
Abridging the Freedom of Speech
Alex Jones and company are free to say what they'd like when they'd like to. So long as it does not directly threaten anyone, they are breaking no criminal laws. But that doesn't mean they should be protected either. Civil violations are many and the amount of money information falsifiers stand to lose in a suit is high, as it should be. The burden of proof is also far less in a civil suit, with a "preponderance of evidence" being required vs "beyond a reasonable doubt" for criminal cases, empowering those wronged by extremist rhetoric to be made whole again
The system of lenient criminality but wide-ranging civil wrongdoing is ideal for matters concerning freedom of expression. It encourages real news promoters to seek out the most non-objective information available, while discouraging conspiracy theorists from trying to legitimize their beliefs before the masses, and helps remind the public that there's a difference between fact and fiction. Civil suits also tend to keep policymakers at bay, who often feel compelled to present reactive legislation in the face of high profile crimes (see Megan's law, the SAFE Act, etc). Rarely does such legislation follow civil cases.
It also hits people like Jones where it hurts the most: their wallets. Thanks mostly to InfoWars merchandise, Jones generates around $10 million a year in revenue, meaning he has a lot to lose.
The downside of course is the cost. Criminal cases are almost always pursued by a district or federal attorney, with the taxpayers footing the bill. Civil cases however, must be initiated by an interested party, and are either funded out of pocket, or are done pro-bono. When you're facing a madmen with a millions of dollars to burn, it's easy to see why many individuals chose not to sue.
The Hogan-Thiel Offensive
This method at suing for silence has been seen before, just not in the context Newtown parents are pursing.
Hulk Hogan sued the now-defunct gossip site Gawker in 2013 for invasion of privacy after their publishing of a comprising tape. The suit, funded by billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, sought millions worth of damages. Thiel, who was ousted by Gawker as gay in 2007, was gunning for retribution. Ultimately, Hogan won $140 million worth of damages in 2016, and Thiel won the unintentional shuttering of Gawker.
That said, it will probably be years before the suit against Jones' InfoWars is settled. But if the plaintiffs can achieve the same outcome as Hogan, it would be a major victory for the truth. Depending on the amount of punitive damages (the kind meant to discourage similar activities by potential future wrongdoers) awarded, it would project a clear message: keep the news free of blatant and intentional falsities.