Libel lawsuits targeting vile conspiracy theories
Originally published in Spring 2019 edition of California Publisher
By Jason Shepard
For years, rightwing provocateur Alex Jones has peddled a bizarre conspiracy theory that the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school was “staged,” an “inside job,” a “giant hoax,” and a “false flag.”
Now, four libel lawsuits in Connecticut and Texas threaten Jones’s media empire.
At a time when “fake news” and “alternative facts” define a “post-truth” era, what are the limits for libelous lies in today’s marketplace of ideas?
On Dec. 14, 2012, a troubled, 20-year-old man killed his mother at their home in Newtown, Conn., before driving to the elementary school and killing 20 children and six adults in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Jones, 45, became obsessed with promoting the shooting as a government and media-led conspiracy in which parents of murdered children were complicit.
“Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured,” Jones said on a broadcast, according to court records.
One of Jones’ sources and on-air contributor claimed one of the murdered children, Avielle Richman, was really alive and living with another family in Newtown. In March 2019, Richman’s father committed suicide. Authorities have not released the suicide note.
Each lawsuit documents the families’ suffering. They were harassed and videotaped by strangers. Others received death threats and went into hiding. One of Jones’ listeners sent messages including “you gonna die, death is coming to real soon.” The woman was convicted for threats and banned from listening to Jones’ broadcasts.
“Jones has accused Sandy Hook families, who are readily identifiable, of faking their loved ones’ deaths, and insisted that the children killed that day are actually alive,” according to one of the complaints. “Jones has deliberately employed these false narratives about the Sandy Hook shooting, the victims, and their families as part of a marketing scheme that has brought him and his business entitles tens of millions of dollars per year.”
Scholars of libel law would be hard pressed to make up a case with more sympathetic plaintiffs and more heinous defendants.
The audience for conspiracies
Conspiracy theories have been part of Jones’ work from the beginning. Elaborate government plots abound in Jones’ commentary.
Immune from facts and reason, conspiracy theories play off listeners’ fears and thrive in niche media echo chambers.
In the recent book “After the Fact: The Erosion of Truth and the Inevitable Rise of Donald Trump,” journalist Nathan Bomey identifies recent trends “that have created the perfect seedbed for spin, distortion, deception and bald-faced lies: shifting news habits, the rise of social media, the spread of entrenched ideologies, and the failure of schools to teach basic critical-thinking skills.”
Jones makes a lot of money from pushing conspiracy theories. Court records show he makes up to $20 million a year. His revenue comes largely from hawking rightwing merchandise, male enhancement drugs and nutritional supplements with names like DNA Force Plus and Brain Force Plus.
Jones grew up in Texas and was drawn to local radio after dropping out of community college. His role models included Rush Limbaugh, who pioneered rightwing talk radio. An Austin radio station fired Jones in 1999 for his extremist views. He started broadcasting from his house and began getting picked up by local radio stations. But after he claimed the 9/11 terrorist attacks were faked as “controlled demolitions,” many stations dropped his show.
Jones continued his home broadcasts. As the digital era took hold, he found new audiences. The launch of YouTube in 2005 was a boon, and for years, Jones’ audiences grew through social media platforms.
Jones’ daily radio show is syndicated through the Minnesota-based Genesis Communications Network to about 160 stations, drawing an estimated audience of two million listeners. At its peak, Jones’ YouTube channel had 2.4 million subscribers. In 2013, according to a profile in Esquire, Jones had a staff of 50.
Jones’ website, InfoWars.com, is now the easiest place to find his content, after social media companies like iTunes, Facebook, Spotify, Twitter, and YouTubetook him off their platforms in the last two years. YouTube terminated his page in August 2018 for violating its hate speech and harassment standards.
The Sandy Hook lawsuits allege Jones’ “lucrative business model” is based on his “fabrication, propagation, and amplification of conspiracy-minded falsehoods” revolving around “paranoia, social anxiety, and political discord, a known motivator for some people.”
The Sandy Hook families aren’t the first to feel the wrath of Jones’ listeners and viewers.
In 2016, Jones urged his listeners to “investigate” a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant that was allegedly the home of a Democratic Party child-sex ring. Days later, one of his listeners showed up and fired three gunshots at the restaurant.
In 2017, Brennan Gilmore, who filmed video of a car crashing into a crowd in Charlottesville, Va., killing Heather Heyer and injuring others, became a target of conspiracy theorists who argued the killing was “staged” to take down President Donald J. Trump.
Gilmore filed a defamation lawsuit in federal court in Virginia against Jones and others after he received hate mail, death threats and hacking attempts.
“The First Amendment does not and cannot protect deliberate lies designed to incite incessant harassment and violence against private citizens,” Gilmore’s lawyer, Andrew Mendrala, supervising attorney of Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic, said in a statement. “This case is a simple defense of democracy. A well-informed public is essential to a healthy democracy. But a deliberately misinformed public is fatal to it.”
In March, a judge denied Jones’ motion to dismiss the case, ruling that Gilmore had made a strong showing that several false statements were made about him with actual malice.
President Trump is among Jones’ biggest fans. In an interview with Jones at Trump Tower in December 2015, Trump told Jones, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down. You will be very, very impressed, I hope. And I think we will be speaking a lot.”
After Trump won election in November 2016, Jones said Trump called to thank him.
Trump is among those who have defended Jones’ free speech rights after social media companies banned him from their platforms. But of course, there is no First Amendment right to an uncensored YouTube portal, because YouTube as a private business has a First Amendment right to control its messages. YouTube, like other social media companies, decided Jones crossed the line of decency one too many times.
The status of libel law
Libel law aims to give individuals a legal right to protect their reputations from defamatory falsehoods.
A matter of state law for much of U.S. history, the U.S. Supreme Court “federalized” libel law in its 1964 landmark case New York Times v. Sullivan. The Court struck down a $500,000 judgment against the Times for an advertisement in support of Martin Luther King, Jr., that an Alabama official didn’t like.
The First Amendment, the Court wrote in Sullivan, erects limits for libel plaintiffs in order to ensure a robust marketplace of ideas.
Generally, modern libel law requires plaintiffs to prove their reputations were damaged by intentional or reckless falsehoods, and the defendant published the defamation at a requisite level of “fault.”
The fault standards are tougher for public figures than for private individuals. Plaintiffs who have voluntarily enter public life, like elected officials and celebrities, usually have to prove “actual malice” to win a libel lawsuit, while private individuals usually have to prove only negligence, an easier standard to meet.
If ever there were a textbook case of what libel law is meant to protect, it may be these plaintiffs.
The families say Jones’ comments were defamatory by claiming the Sandy Hook parents engaged in fraudulent and illegal activity by faking their children’s murders. The comments injured the families’ reputations by exposing them to “hatred, contempt and ridicule.” And Jones’ statements were “knowingly false or made with reckless disregard for the truth,” the lawsuits allege.
Jone’s lawyers argue the parents should be considered limited-purpose public figures, and not private individuals, making it more difficult, but still not impossible, to win.
Jones also argues his comments are protected under the First Amendment, including as opinion, criticism and rhetorical hyperbole.
“The goal of this lawsuit,” Jones’ lawyers wrote in one brief, is to silence anyone “who refuses to accept what the mainstream media and government tell them, and prevent them from expressing any doubt or raising questions.”
The cases are moving forward in Texas and Connecticut, and Jones may face a steep climb in using the First Amendment as a defense.
In March 2019, lawyers for the Sandy Hook families made public a three-hour deposition of Jones. Near the end, Jones volunteered that he suffered from a “bloom of psychosis back in the past” when he “thought everything was staged.”
Jones added, “I’m now learning a lot of things aren’t staged. As a pundit and someone giving opinion, my opinions have been wrong but they were never wrong consciously to hurt people.”
His comments at the end of his deposition offered a rare moment of introspection, almost making him sympathetic.
But mostly, Jones’ defense is that the First Amendment gives him the right to question everything and say anything he wants in the process — no matter how false or harmful, even to families of children murdered in their elementary school.