What does Alex Jones’ verdict on misinformation mean?

Alex Jones is facing a hefty price for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre – $49.3 million in damages, and continues to claim that the school shooting the nation’s deadliest was a hoax – a blow in the nascent war on harmful misinformation.

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

“I think a lot of people are thinking this is a big blow to fake news, and it’s important to realize that libel laws deal with one kind of thing,” said Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment professor at UCLA. very specific fake news. School of Law.

US courts have long held that defamatory statements – lies that damage the reputation of a person or a business – are not protected as free speech, but lies. on other topics, like science, history or government, yes. For example, saying COVID-19 is not real is not defamation, but spreading lies about a doctor treating coronavirus patients is not.

That distinction is why Jones, who attacked the parents of Sandy Hook victims and claimed the 2012 shooting was staged with actors to boost gun control, is being forced to pay. prices while Holocaust deniers, flatulists, and vaccine skeptics are free to post their theories without much fear of a multimillion-dollar court ruling.

“Alex Jones attacked individuals,” said Stephen D. Solomon, a law professor and founding editor of New York University’s First Amendment Watch. “And that’s important. A lot of misinformation doesn’t attack individuals.”

Attorneys for the plaintiff, the parent of one of 20 first-graders killed at a Connecticut school in 2012, say they hope a large-money sentence against Jones will have a deterrent effect on him. and others selling false information for profit.

“I’m asking you to take away the threat from Alex Jones and all the others who believe they can profit from fear and misinformation,” Wesley Ball said during the closing debate. on Friday. “The gold rush of fear and misinformation must end, and it must end today.”

Jones, who has acknowledged that the shooting was real, claimed his claims about Sandy Hook were protected by the First Amendment. He even appeared in court with “Save the 1st” scribbled on a bandage over his mouth.

But despite public theaters, Jones never had to make that argument in court. After Jones failed to comply with an order to hand over substantial evidence, a judge granted a default judgment to the plaintiffs and omitted the right of the punitive period.

Jones’ attorney Andino Reynal told the jury while concluding arguments that a major verdict would have a chilling effect on those seeking to hold governments accountable.

“You have sent a message. For the first time ever, a talk show host tells all talk show hosts that their standard of care must change,” Reynal told jurors.

Freedom of speech experts say any chilling effect should be limited to those intentionally disseminating disinformation, not journalists or other citizens making a benevolent effort. even to get the truth of an issue.

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

“The kind of speech that defames parents who have lost a child in a massacre is probably the kind of speech you want to deter. You want to chill that speech,” said Solomon. “That’s the message the judges want to send here, that this is unacceptable in a civilized society.”

As for Jones, Reynal said he won’t be leaving anytime soon. He will continue to broadcast while they appeal the ruling, one of the biggest and most significant in a defamation case in recent years.

Among others: a gadfly ordered in February to pay $50 million to a South Carolina mayor after accusing her of committing crimes in email and being unfit for duty; a former tenant ordered in 2016 to pay $38.3 million for posting a website alleging a real estate investor was running a Ponzi scheme; and a New Hampshire mortgage provider ordered in 2017 to pay two businessmen $274 million after he posted billboards accusing them of drug trafficking and extortion.

“These types of damages and judgments really have a chilling effect on the spine,” says Volokh. “They are intended to give a chilling effect to lies that damage people’s reputations.”

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