Alex Jones, host and creator of the far-right conspiracy-theory website Infowars, has received what is likely to be only the first of a series of expensive lessons about the importance of fact-checking.
On Thursday, a Texas jury ordered Jones to pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages to the parents of one child killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. The parents, Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, had sued Jones for defamation after Jones accused them of faking the death of their son in order to attack gun rights.
The size of the verdict validates the strategy of going after conspiracy theorists on grounds of defamation.
On Friday, in addition to the $4.1 million, meant to compensate Heslin and Lewis for the emotional trauma they suffered, the jury determined Jones would also have to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded against defendants to punish them for their bad behavior.
This is not only a large blow to Jones, who has already filed for bankruptcy, but to other conspiracy-theory fomenters who fill their audiences’ heads with stories of the deep state, a stolen election and a child-sex ring in the basement of a pizza restaurant.
Jones styles himself as a media broadcaster, and the media has historically been given a lot of latitude in publishing statements that are even partially false. That latitude has helped modern partisan news sites like Newsmax and Breitbart to use their platforms to spread outlandish theories with impunity.
But after the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection, individuals and companies have started to push back against media outlets that spread false information. Their weapon of choice is the defamation suit.
Fox News is currently being sued for $1.6 billion by Dominion Voting Systems for 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 the other conspiracy-peddlers out there. Repeating nonsense theories from 4chan or Reddit may not be protected free speech even if you attempt to disguise it as “questioning known liars in the media.”
Early on in his Texas case, Jones tried to invoke his freedom of speech in multiple ways. First, he argued that the case should be dismissed because he was speaking on a matter of public concern, and his speech should therefore be protected under the First Amendment. Second, he argued that his statements against the Sandy Hook families were mere opinions and therefore couldn’t be defamatory. He lost both of these arguments largely on procedural grounds because he refused to produce documents to the plaintiffs' attorneys despite a very clear court order.
It’s unfortunate that a jury never heard the merits of the case or Jones’ First Amendment defenses. The unusual path of this case allows for a considerable amount of uncertainty in whether conspiracy theories can be defended on free speech grounds in the future.
The Texas Court of Appeals, however, did indicate that many of Jones’ claims would not have succeeded before it sent the case back to the trial court whose jury determined the payout. In response to Heslin’s claim of defamation, which rested on Jones’ statements being provably false, Jones argued that his statements were not defamatory because he was just stating his opinion and not a false statement of fact.
The court of appeals, however, pointed to several of Jones’ statements claiming that Heslin had lied about holding his son’s body. Jones, cloaking his statements as merely “questioning” whether the media was lying because of allegedly conflicting evidence, was not enough for the court of appeals to find that Jones had made a statement of opinion rather than fact.
The court of appeals’ opinion, along with the massive payout faced by Jones — whose estimated net worth is between $135 million and $270 million — should give less financially secure conspiracy theorists pause before hitting the publish button.
The size of the verdict validates the strategy of going after conspiracy theorists on grounds of defamation. That’s significant because, though it has been argued that some of Jones’ activity crosses the line into outright criminal incitement, it’s much harder to make a case on that score.
After Jones broadcast the home address and other identifying details about Leonard Pozner, another one of the Sandy Hook parents, death threats followed. But this doesn’t necessarily show that Jones actually wanted Pozner to be harmed.
The closest thing Texas has to incitement is criminal solicitation, and this crime is limited to situations in which the parties are “acting together,” which means that the person who “encourages” the crime must have specifically wanted that crime to happen.
During his testimony this week, Jones apologized to the families and stated that he “never intentionally tried to hurt” them. Indeed, there isn’t a lot of 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 occurred.
Texas also has a criminal harassment law, which makes it illegal for a person who has the “intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another” to publish “on an Internet website, including a social media platform, repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to cause emotional distress, abuse, or torment to another person, unless the communications are made in connection with a matter of public concern.”
Again, Jones’ behavior almost fits the bill. He did make repeated broadcasts on his website that were likely to cause the Sandy Hook families emotional distress. But there isn’t much evidence that he did it specifically to harass them and, more important, the subject was certainly a matter of public concern.
Though it has been argued that some of Jones’ activity crosses the line into outright criminal incitement, it’s much harder to make a case on that score.
But with no recourse under criminal law, it was up to the Sandy Hook families to go after Jones’ wallet. This week, the only thing the jury was asked to determine was how much money Jones should be required to pay to Heslin and Lewis for his defamatory statements.
When assessing damages, Jones’ apology to the parents may have influenced the jury, though under Texas defamation law, there is no requirement that Jones intended to harm anyone; he merely had to be reckless in publishing information that he had reason to know was false. However, Texas law does state that Jones’ intent may impact how much in punitive damages the jury can award.
Texas’ definition of defamation and its requirement of actual ill-will for exemplary or punitive damages is typical across the country, so the plaintiffs who have sued Jones in Connecticut will have the same burden of proof for punitive damages.
Heslin and Lewis have said they are thrilled with the jury’s verdict. Absent criminal charges against Jones, a massive damages award and a bankruptcy filing will have to be punishment enough — along with the hope that this verdict will keep other conspiracy theorists from spreading lies.