OPINION: The Alex Jones Verdict Is Wrong and Dangerous

(Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)

Friday, a Texas jury returned a whopping judgment of $42.5 million in punitive damages against InfoWars founder Alex Jones over statements he made in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. This was on top of the $4.l million in actual damages awarded to the parents on Thursday.

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The gist of the case was that Alex Jones, in the most Alex Jones manner possible, claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting that left six adults and 20 children dead never happened. Instead, according to Jones, the victims were “crisis actors,” and it was all a huge conspiracy between some parents and media organizations.

The claim was obviously nuts, but this is Alex Jones, right?

The parents claimed that their reputations were damaged and that Alex Jones’ statements had resulted in them getting death threats from Jones’ followers.

Jones is an easy target for hate. His bullsh** conspiratorial approach to news is distasteful. His use of a  criminal act as a fundraising instrument by denying the slaughter of 26 people had happened wrong by any standard. But before we cheer on the vengeful harpies of wrongspeak, we must consider the impact.

I’m not a lawyer, but putting aside the bizarre fact that Jones’ legal team permitted a default judgment against him, it is difficult to understand why the Jones lawsuit was ever allowed. As a matter of fact, it is doubtful that anyone associated with the Sandy Hook shooting suffered reputational damage. No matter what Jones claimed, there was never a national movement that said, “Hey, that shooting at Sandy Hook was bogus.” On the contrary, President Obama eulogized the victims.

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Now you could plausibly claim that having Obama associated with anything damages the reputation of all involved, but that is not the claim made in the lawsuit. The plaintiffs claim they were injured because Jones urges listeners not to believe the interviews they gave. Hurt feelings do not equate to a reputational loss. Accusations made against you by fringe figures don’t hurt your reputation. If receiving death threats based on the public statements of the subject of a story opened that person to financial liability, many RedState writers would be independently wealthy and looking forward to a cushy and early retirement.

The trial was nothing more than using the legal process to punish an unpopular person for saying stupid stuff. If that is a crime, we are all f***ed.

Using the same facts in the Jones case, let’s take the case of Caroline Edwards, Aquilino Gonell, Harry Dunn, Daniel Hodges, Michael Fanone, or any other police officer involved in the January 6 demonstrations. Under the “Jones Standard, ” they are entitled to relief from reputational harm if anyone claims they were in no danger because they were. They would win if anyone claimed that saying the events of January 6 were not an “insurrection,” as they have publicly taken that position, and contrary claims harm their reputations. They would be entitled to monetary damages from anyone who expressed sympathy for the demonstrators and suggested that the cold-blooded murder of Ashlii Babbit and the apparent beating death of Rosanne Boyland were anything but justified again because of reputational damage. Any threats they received could be attributed to statements criticizing their public words and actions.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci could use the same standard to claim damages from anyone who claimed his response to COVID might require his appearance at a future tribunal followed by a lengthy prison term.

Those members of Antifa who have had charges against them dismissed in Seattle, Portland, and other areas could use the standard applied to Jones to demand money for the damage to their reputations done by reporting and commentary on their arrests and the dismissal of their charges.

If spreading lies is a punishable act, President Donald Trump has more than met the factual threshold necessary to hold everyone who pimped the Russia Hoax financially liable for their actions. Well, not quite, because the Jones lawsuit has never been about punishing reckless and obviously false speech. It is about punishing someone who is outside the mainstream.

Using the Jones case as a model, all the plaintiff needs to prove to prevail is a) the person making the statement is unpopular, 2) the statement made is not within the conventional wisdom, and 3) the plaintiff’s feelings were hurt.

Jones may be an unsavory character, he might even deserve punishment, but the principle established by the success of this lawsuit and the damages awarded is profoundly dangerous. The lawsuit should have been summarily dismissed as a blatant violation of the First Amendment. In fairness, this is an essay by something called the Free Speech Center claiming that Jones would have lost the case even had his legal team bothered to contest it. Instead, it has provided a windfall of nearly $50 million for the plaintiffs and their attorneys. It has also established a profoundly dangerous precedent that will haunt us for years unless an appeals court reverses this atrocity.

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