Times are tough for the original king of pushing the envelope
Times are tough for the original king of pushing the envelope.
Last year, Infowars founder Alex Jones lost by default in a defamation case brought against him by several Sandy Hook parents, after a Texas judge ruled that Jones and his company had repeatedly failed to comply with orders to turn over certain documents during discovery. Now, a jury in Austin just ordered him to pony up millions of dollars:
Right-wing talk show host Alex Jones will have to pay the parents of a Sandy Hook shooting victim a little more than $4 million in compensatory damages, a jury decided Thursday, capping a stunning and dramatic case that showcased for the public the real-world harm inflicted by viral conspiracy theories.
The award from the jury was far less than what the plaintiffs, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, had asked for. At the start of the trial, attorneys for Lewis and Heslin asked the jury to award their clients $150 million in compensatory damages. A separate, shorter trial during which punitive damages will be discussed is now expected.
More recently this month, the jury recommended punitive damages of more than $45 million, though that amount will almost certainly be reduced substantially due to legal limits, subsequent appeals, or a possible settlement.
Amidst all of the fanfare and controversy, it is easy to overlook just how weak the defamation case against Jones really was. The Sandy Hook parents mentioned above based their defamation claim on a 2017 NBC interview where Heslin said he held his son’s body after he was murdered. In a contemporaneous Infowars segment, reporter Owen Shroyer said that, “according to a timeline of events and a coroner’s testimony, that is not possible,” and Jones responded by calling Heslin to “clarify” his statements. Otherwise, all of Jones’s “defamatory” behavior is premised on him making wild but vague allegations of a Sandy Hook false flag by unknown forces. Virtually all of the damages, meanwhile, are based on blaming Jones for the actions of people he doesn’t even know.
Based on the alleged trauma caused by Jones’s claims, and harassment from various people who are neither Jones himself nor acting on his orders, the plaintiffs sought a staggering $150 million in damages. The $4.1 million judgment is mercifully less than that, but after punitive damages come in Jones will still be paying a massive amount. Last week, Alex Jones put Free Speech Systems LLC, the parent company for his popular InfoWars show and website, into Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time.
To be clear, we cannot defend the wisdom and judiciousness of Jones’ coverage of Sandy Hook. Jones himself expressed regret regarding his coverage and acknowledged he should have treated the subject differently. There is no issue more sensitive than a parent grieving a child, and journalists must always strive to cover such topics with empathy, discernment, and caution.
At the same time, it is a very dangerous precedent to set when the feelings of grieving families can be used to silence reporting — even “conspiratorial and crazy” reporting — on tragedies of national significance. The Sandy Hook tragedy was a very public and very politicized event from the beginning, and almost immediately became enveloped into a national debate about gun control. Just months after the Sandy Hook Tragedy, Connecticut passed a dramatic enhancement to its so-called “assault weapons ban.” New York and Maryland took similar action, while Senator Diane Feinstein proposed a severe assault weapons ban at the national level, which never passed.
Given the political stakes involved, it seems consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment and the spirit of a free society to allow maximum discussion and deliberation about a major tragedy serving as the catalyst for legislation, even if some of that discussion turns out to be silly, crude, cruel, irresponsible, or even harmful to the emotional state of the families affected by that tragedy.
From very early on, Connecticut took a dubious approach to balancing the sensitivities of the Sandy Hook families against the public interest in transparency. The most egregious of such responses was a Connecticut law, drafted behind closed doors and in secret, that took unprecedented steps to withhold forensic evidence related to homicides from the public:
At a time when citizens increasingly call for government transparency, the Connecticut legislature recently passed a bill to withhold graphic information depicting homicides from the public in response to records from last December’s devastation at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Though secret discussions drafting this bill reportedly date back to at least early April, the bill did not become public knowledge until an email was leaked to the Hartford Courant on May 21. The initial draft of what became Senate Bill 1149 offered wide protection specifically for families of victims of the December 14 shootings, preventing disclosure of public photographs, videos, 911 audio recordings, death certificates, and more.
The bill as approved exempts photographs, film, video, digital or other images depicting a homicide victim from being part of the public record “to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim’s surviving family members.” The bill particularly protects child victims, exempting from disclosure the names of victims and witnesses under 18 years old. It would also limit disclosure of audio records of emergency and other law enforcement calls as public records, such that portions describing the homicide victim’s condition would not have to be released, though this provision will be reevaluated by a 17-member task force by May 2014.
Transparency advocates at the time were especially concerned about the implication of this law, which not only applied to Sandy Hook, but to homicides in Connecticut generally
From the beginning, this topic has raised concerns with respect to Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act and government transparency. In addition to being drafted in secrecy, the bill was not subjected to the traditional public hearing process
SB1149 is also problematic in that it extends to recordings of emergency calls. While there is some precedent for restricting access to gruesome photos and video after a tragedy, this is far more limited with respect to audio recordings.
This aspect of the law in particular may have grave consequences for the future of the state’s transparency. Records of emergency calls traditionally become public records and are used by the media and ordinary citizens alike to evaluate law enforcement and their response to emergencies. The condition of the victim is an essential element of evaluating law enforcement response. As the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sonny Albarado, noted, “If you hide away documents from the public, then the public has no way of knowing whether police…have done their jobs correctly.” In other words, these calls serve as an essential check on government.
Imagine, for instance, if the Sandy Hook Privacy laws applied to the Uvalde shooting, in which surveillance photos revealed complete failure and professional misconduct on the part of the police force.
Under the Sandy Hook defamation precedent, any news story, no matter how large its national significance, could be tightly controlled so long as grieving families are present.
While the grieving Sandy Hook families may be especially sympathetic, there are other cases which immediately underscore the danger of this precedent. Take, for instance, the case of murdered former DNC employee Seth Rich. Several years ago Fox News settled with the parents of Seth Rich for a story suggesting Rich was the source of leaked DNC emails:
The Fox News Channel has reached a private settlement with the parents of the slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. The network had baselessly reported in May 2017 that Rich leaked thousands of Democratic party emails to Wikileaks during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign.
The story, reported by Fox News’ Malia Zimmerman and retracted seven days later, also suggested without any evidence that Democrats might have been linked to the killing of the 27-year-old Rich, a crime that has not been solved to this day. In response to NPR’s questions, a Fox News spokesperson tells NPR that Zimmerman is no longer with the network.
“The settlement with Fox News closes another chapter in our efforts to mourn the murder of our beloved Seth, whom we miss every single day,” Joel and Mary Rich wrote in their statement. “We are pleased with the settlement of this and sincerely hope that the media will take genuine caution in the future.”
It is noteworthy that Julian Assange himself had some highly suggestive remarks in relation to Seth Rich, and Wikileaks took the decidedly unusual step of offering a reward for solving the Seth Rich murder case:
The Jones defamation case could further pave the way for more lawsuits against anyone with alternative theories about such incidents. Not that any alternative theories are needed—after all, U.S. intelligence agencies and Robert Mueller insisted we have the Russians to blame for the DNC hack!
Numerous U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded it was hackers with ties to Russian spy agencies – not Rich – who were behind the theft of the DNC emails that were posted by Wikileaks during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Other examples abound. If Sandy Hook conspiracy theories merit $150 million in damages, do alternative theories of the Vegas shooting merit the same treatment?
The Sandy Hook defamation trial was not ultimately about Sandy Hook or the Sandy Hook families. The trial itself made it obvious that Jones’ past statements were not the real reason for the trial. Rather, the trial’s purpose to stop Jones and others from speaking out in the future.
One of their attorneys, Wesley Ball, urged the jury on Friday to award $145.9 million in punitive damages to reach the full $150 million that the parents asked for. He said the jury had a chance to not only take away Jones’ platform but also ensure that he can not rebuild it.
“I am asking you to take the bullhorn away from Alex Jones and all of the others who believe they can profit off of fear and misinformation,” Ball said to the jury. “The gold rush of fear and misinformation must end, and it must end today.”
It’s all about the bullhorn—that is, all about making sure that the Regime is in exclusive possession of the megaphone, and any non-approved person who dares speak non-approved narratives to the public gets crushed.
The aggressive use of defamation law is just the latest tool in the Regime’s arsenal to silence dissent. The fact that the Regime is using the defamation tool against Alex Jones ought to concern everyone who cares about free speech and the truth; remember, Alex Jones is something of a testing ground for new suppression tools, and was one of the very first to get massively deplatformed before the Big Tech censors came after everyone else.
Four years ago, CNN spearheaded a successful push to get Alex Jones and Infowars deplatformed from YouTube, Facebook, and other social media. Most on the right said little or nothing, because Jones was considered “extreme.” Yet it was obvious even then that Jones was only the first domino, and once he fell ever-more-important outlets and public figure would be treated the same way. Less than three years later, YouTube and Twitter successfully deplatformed the sitting U.S. president.
The New York Times has a clear-eyed view of what the stakes in the current case are:
Lawyers say the three trials hold lessons for other cases against conspiracy-minded defendants, from the Jan. 6 insurrectionists to Trump allies sued for falsely claiming that voting machine manufacturers helped “steal” the 2020 presidential election.
Lawyers for the Sandy Hook families say a verdict, expected this week in the first trial, could send a signal to other conspiracy purveyors about the cost of online lies and set into motion a chain of events that could shut Infowars down.
Why does the Sandy Hook case matter, according to the Times? Because it could “take the bullhorn” away from those who dispute election results or question the official narrative of January 6, while plundering them for millions in the process.
To the Times, this is clearly not a straightforward application of existing defamation law, but a bold attack seeking to vastly expand its scope. The headline is revealing as well: “Lies for Profit: Can Sandy Hook Parents Shut Alex Jones Down?” The goal is not to hold Alex Jones liable for specific harms, but to stop him from speaking at all, permanently. Then, when that is accomplished, they will move on to silencing other dissenting voices, permanently.
The Sandy Hook lawsuit was never about protecting Sandy Hook parents. It was about protecting America’s corrupt ruling class from an alternative media that refuses to mindlessly repeat their lies.
It is not simply that the Sandy Hook lawsuit isn’t ultimately about protecting the grieving parents—it isn’t even about attacking and silencing conspiracy theories per se. It is worth remembering that Alex Jones was not a real target for deplatforming and immiseration prior to the Trump phenomenon, of which Alex Jones was one of the most prominent supporters.
Prior to Jones’ entanglement with Trump and the broader Trump phenomenon, the establishment largely viewed the radio host as an entertaining curiosity—if not entirely harmless than certainly not the enemy of the state that must be destroyed at all costs that the establishment now views him as.
In light of the present escalation of hostilities, it is remarkable to revisit the once-viral CNN interview between Piers Morgan and Alex Jones. For context, the interview took place only weeks after Sandy Hook tragedy and the subject was gun control:
To be sure, the interview was histrionic and by no means “friendly.” What is remarkable, however, besides the fact that CNN gave Jones a platform at all, which they certainly wouldn’t now, is what Jones’ interviewer/antagonist Piers Morgan neglects to say: nowhere does Morgan attack Jones for being a “conspiracy theorist” about Sandy Hook or call for his deplatforming (which would be odd given that CNN gave him a platform). Furthermore, in CNN’s write-up of the viral exchange, it does not attack Jones for Sandy Hook conspiracies or demand his de-platforming. Amazingly, the write up refers to Jones simply as a “radio host”; not “right wing extremist”, not “white supremacist”, and not not radical conspiracy theorist”:
Was it a debate? A berating? A surreal televised “stunt”? No matter what you call radio host Alex Jones’ appearance on “Piers Morgan Tonight,” one thing is certain: It’s generating a great deal of social media buzz.
On Tuesday morning, Jones was a top-trending topic on Twitter as people read about the interview, watched clips online or shared their thoughts after watching Monday night’s fiery exchange live.
The man behind a petition to deport Morgan back to the UK for expressing his views on gun control went on the attack, calling the CNN host “a hatchet man of the new world order.”
If this is how CNN described Alex Jones just weeks after Sandy Hook, here’s how CNN described Alex Jones earlier this month, August, 2022:
The parents of a child who was murdered during the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting delivered emotional testimony in a Texas court on Tuesday, telling a jury that the lies pushed by right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones have stained the legacy of their son and tormented them for years.
It almost seems as though CNN and the establishment more broadly could care less about Sandy Hook, and this is really about punishing Jones for his Trump support.
Before Jones supported Trump, he was even allowed a friendly interview on The View, complete with applause in the beginning, where Jones defended Charlie Sheen. The following clip is a must watch, as The View hostesses sit respectfully as Jones makes reference to World Trade Center’s Building 7, the Iraq War, Federal Reserve, and other items as he defends his embattled friend Sheen:
And so again, we see that it is not the alleged “conspiracy theories” that have made Jones a pariah, but rather his participation in the Trump phenomenon. This is not to diminish Jones or even suggest that his so-called “conspiracies” were all false—it is simply to point out the utter disingenuousness of the establishment’s no holds barred effort to destroy this man.
The rise of Donald Trump and the energies associated with his America First movement posed a threat to the corrupt ruling class and therefore raised the stakes in American politics, and thus raised the stakes of free speech and possession of the “bullhorn” to an unprecedented degree. This is why the entire C-suite of Google got together the day after Trump’s election to vow to never let this happen again, this is why the national security state has gone into overdrive to classify Trump and his supporters as national security threats, and this is why the Regime is willing to pull out every trick in the book, including defamation law, to destroy leading anti-establishment voices in the post Trump era.
Republicans, conservatives, and American patriots generally would be wise to speak out against the Regime’s battle against Alex Jones, if only because it is a battle in the larger war against all of us.