Alex Jones, host and creator of the far-right conspiracy theory website Infowars, has received what will likely only be the first in a series of costly lessons on the importance of fact-checking.
On Thursday, a Texas jury ordered Jones to pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages to the parents of a child murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre. The parents, Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, had sued Jones for defamation after Jones accused them of faking their son’s death in order to attack gun rights.
The size of the verdict validates the strategy of suing conspiracy theorists for defamation.
On Friday, in addition to the $4.1 million intended to compensate Heslin and Lewis for the emotional trauma they suffered, the jury determined that Jones should also pay $45.2 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded to defendants to punish them for their misconduct.
This is not just a blow to Jones, who has already filed for bankruptcy, but to other conspiracy theorists who fill their audiences’ heads with stories about the Deep State, a stolen election and a pedophile ring in the basement of a pizzeria.
Jones presents himself as a media outlet, and the media has historically had plenty of leeway to release statements that are even partially untrue. This latitude has helped modern partisan news sites like Newsmax and Breitbart use their platforms to spread outlandish theories with impunity.
But after the 2020 election and the January 6 insurgency, individuals and businesses began to push back against media that spread false information. Their weapon of choice is the libel suit.
Fox News is currently being sued for $1.6 billion by Dominion Voting Systems over Fox News’ claim that Dominion voting machines helped rig the 2020 presidential election. The verdict against Jones should serve as a warning to the network and all other conspiracy traffickers. Repeating nonsensical 4chan or Reddit theories may not be protected by free speech, even if you try to disguise it as “questioning known liars in the media”.
Early in his case in Texas, Jones tried to invoke his freedom of speech in several ways. First, he argued that the case should be dismissed because he was speaking on a matter of public interest and therefore his speech should be protected under the First Amendment. Second, he argued that his statements against the Sandy Hook families were mere opinions and therefore could not be defamatory. He lost both of these arguments largely on procedural grounds because he refused to produce documents to plaintiff’s attorneys despite a very clear court order.
It is unfortunate that a jury never heard the merits of the case or Jones’ First Amendment defenses. The unusual course of this case leaves room for considerable uncertainty about whether conspiracy theories can be defended on the basis of free speech in the future.
The Texas Court of Appeals, however, indicated that many of Jones’ claims would have been unsuccessful before returning the case to the trial court whose jury determined payment. In response to Heslin’s defamation claim, which was based on Jones’ statements being patently untrue, Jones argued that his statements were not defamatory because he was only expressing his opinion and not a misrepresentation of fact.
The appeals court, however, pointed to several of Jones’ statements claiming that Heslin lied about holding her son’s body. Jones disguising his statements as a mere ‘question’ of whether the media was lying due to allegedly conflicting evidence was not enough for the appeals court to conclude that Jones had made a statement of opinion rather than fact. .
The appeals court opinion, along with the massive payout facing Jones — whose estimated net worth is between $135 million and $270 million — should give less financially secure conspiracy theorists pause before pressing on the publish button.
The size of the verdict validates the strategy of suing conspiracy theorists for defamation. This matters because, while it has been argued that some of Jones’ activities cross the line of outright criminal incitement, making that point is much more difficult.
After Jones broadcast the home address and other identifying details about Leonard Pozner, another of Sandy Hook’s relatives, death threats followed. But that doesn’t necessarily show that Jones actually wanted Pozner injured.
The closest thing to incitement in Texas is criminal solicitation, and this crime is limited to situations in which the parties are “acting together”, which means that the person who is “promoting” the crime must have specifically intended that this crime to happen.
During his testimony this week, Jones apologized to the families and said he “never intentionally tried to hurt them”. Indeed, there is not much evidence to support the accusation that Jones actively wanted his followers to harass and threaten the Sandy Hook families, even though that is what ultimately happened.
Texas also has a stalking law, which makes it illegal for a person who “intends to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another” to post “ on any website, including a social media platform, repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to cause emotional distress, abuse or harm to another person, unless the communications are made in relation with a matter of public interest.
Again, Jones’ behavior almost fits the bill. He made repeated broadcasts on his website that were likely to cause emotional distress to families in Sandy Hook. But there’s not much evidence that he did it specifically to harass them, and more importantly, the subject was certainly a matter of public interest.
Although it has been argued that some of Jones’ activity crosses the line into outright criminal incitement, it is much more difficult to argue the case on this point.
But with no criminal law recourse, it was up to the Sandy Hook families to take on Jones’ wallet. This week, the only thing the jury was asked to determine was how much money Jones should be required to pay Heslin and Lewis for their defamatory statements.
In assessing damages, Jones’ apology to the parents may have swayed the jury, although under Texas libel law Jones need not have intended to harm to anyone; he simply had to be reckless in publishing information he had reason to know was false. However, Texas law states that Jones’ intent may affect the amount of punitive damages the jury can award.
Texas’ definition of defamation and its actual ill will requirement for exemplary or punitive damages are typical across the country, so plaintiffs who sued Jones in Connecticut will have the same burden of proof for punitive damages.
Heslin and Lewis said they were delighted with the jury’s verdict. The lack of criminal charges against Jones, massive compensation and a bankruptcy filing will have to be punishment enough – with the hope that this verdict will stop other conspiracy theorists from spreading lies.