What does Alex Jones’ $49.3 million verdict mean for the future of disinformation?

Alex Jones faces a heavy price for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre: $49.3 million in damages, and counting, for claiming the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax: a salvo of punishment in an emerging war against harmful disinformation.

But what does this week’s verdict mean, the first of three Sandy Hook v. Jones-related cases to be decided, for the largest disinformation ecosystem, a world of election denial fueled by social media, COVID skepticism -19 and other dubious claims that conspiracy theorist Infowars helped build?

“I think a lot of people are thinking of this as kind of a slam against fake news, and it’s important to realize that defamation law deals with a very particular type of fake news,” said First Amendment professor Eugene Volokh. at UCLA. The law’s school.

U.S. courts have long held that defamatory statements (falsities that damage a person’s or company’s reputation) are not protected as free speech, but lies about other subjects, such as science, history, or government, if they are. For example, saying that COVID-19 is not real is not defamatory, but spreading lies about a doctor treating coronavirus patients is.

That distinction is why Jones, who attacked the parents of the Sandy Hook victims and claimed the 2012 shooting was staged with actors to increase gun control, is forced to pay while those who deny the Holocaust, flat earthers and vaccine skeptics are free to publish their theories. without much fear of a multimillion-dollar court ruling.

“Alex Jones was attacking people,” said Stephen D. Solomon, New York University law professor and founding editor of First Amendment Watch. And that is important. A lot of disinformation does not attack individuals.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, the parents of one of the 20 first graders killed at the Connecticut school in 2012, said they hoped a big money verdict against Jones would serve as a deterrent to him and others selling misinformation for profit. profit.

“I ask you to take the megaphone away from Alex Jones and everyone else who thinks they can benefit from fear and misinformation,” Wesley Ball said in his closing statement Friday. “The gold rush of fear and misinformation must end, and it must end today.”

Jones, who has since acknowledged the shooting was real, said his statements about Sandy Hook were protected by the First Amendment. He even showed up in court with “Save the 1st” scrawled on a piece of duct tape over his mouth.

But despite the public theatrics, Jones never made that argument in court. After Jones failed to comply with orders to turn over critical evidence, a judge entered a default judgment for the plaintiffs and went directly to the punishment phase.

Jones’ attorney, Andino Reynal, told the jury during closing arguments that a large sentence would have a chilling effect on people seeking to hold governments accountable.

“You have already sent a message. A message for the first time to a talk show host, to all talk show hosts, that your standard of care needs to change,” Reynal told the jury.

Free speech experts say any chilling effects should be limited to people spreading senseless false information, not journalists or other citizens making good-faith efforts to get to the truth of a matter.

“You have to look at this particular case and ask yourself, what exactly are you freaking out about?” Solomon said.

“The kind of speech that defames parents who have lost their children in a massacre is perhaps the kind of speech that you want to discourage. You want to cool down that speech,” Solomon said. “That’s the message that potentially the jury wanted to send here, that this is unacceptable in a civilized society.”

As for Jones, Reynal said he’s not leaving any time soon. He will remain on the air as they appeal the verdict, one of the largest and most high-profile decisions in a libel case in recent years.

Among others: a horsefly ordered in February to pay $50 million to a South Carolina mayor after accusing her in emails of committing a crime and not being fit for office; a former tenant who was ordered in 2016 to pay $38.3 million for publishing a website that accused a real estate investor of running a Ponzi scheme; and a New Hampshire mortgage provider was ordered in 2017 to pay three businessmen $274 million after it put up billboards accusing them of drug trafficking and extortion.

“These kinds of damages and verdicts have a chilling effect,” Volokh said. “They are meant to have a chilling effect on lies that damage people’s reputations.”

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