Opinion

Alex Jones deals in vicious stupidity. It's not free speech — it's incitement: Neil Macdonald

Free speech has never been absolute, even in America. Alex Jones's horrifying incitement goes too far, even for the speech libertarian in me.

Jones's followers are effectively guns, loaded by their conspiracy theorist hero

Free speech has never been absolute, even in America. Alex Jones's horrifying incitement goes too far. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Free-speechers – a group of which I am an enthusiastic, gold-card-carrying member – argue that the best response to offensive speech is more speech, rather than the dead hand of the state.

It's a sound axiom, given the primordial compulsion of human beings to suppress, or at least control, the expression of others, particularly in the febrile, ultrasensitive times we are living at the moment.

Imagine the result if governments were to indulge every demand for protection against offence or insult from every group claiming victimhood? We would soon need a ministry of hate speech, with 24-hour call centres to advise on permissible expression.

That said, the doctrine of free speech, so beautifully entrenched in America's basic law, is flawed; it does not take into account the existence in the population of a vicious stupidity more profound and entrenched than any reasonable person could have guessed. And Lucy Richards is the very personification of it.

Richards stalked and criminally threatened the family of a murdered six-year-old. (Paula McMahon/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Richards is a 58-year-old woman who should by now be on supervised release from prison, somewhere in Florida. She was, effectively, weaponized by a vile far-right reptile named Alex Jones, whose many fans include U.S. President Donald Trump. Primed and aimed by Jones, she stalked and criminally threatened the family of a murdered six-year-old.

Jones makes his living preaching conspiracy theories to America's vein of vicious stupidity. Among his more successful crusades was the idea that Hillary Clinton was connected to a child sex ring operating out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria (which prompted a gunman to show up at the pizzeria and open fire), and that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a "false-flag" operation orchestrated by liberal puppets buried in the machinery of government, staged in order to build support for gun control and take assault rifles away from freedom-loving American patriots.

Harassment of Sandy Hook families

According to Jones, the school shooting was a hoax, and the corpses of the children were in fact child actors playing roles. The families of the murdered children, according to Jones, were complicit in this liberal anti-gun plot, and he has helpfully published their personal details, according to an affidavit since filed by one of the families. Millions of visitors to Jones's Infowars website have gobbled up this unspeakable lie, and some have made it their mission to track down and harass the families.

Lucy Richards was one of them.

Richards was sent to prison last summer after pleading guilty to making death threats against the family of Noah Pozner, a six-year-old cut down by mass murderer Adam Lanza's bullets at Sandy Hook. The judge who sentenced her told her the family's sad reality was the only reality, and that she was not entitled to her "alternative facts," a phrase famously invented by Trump shill Kellyanne​ Conway to defend her boss's presidential lies.

But Richards was only one of many in Jones's posse of gullible idiots. Together, they have hounded the Pozner family relentlessly, tracking them down every time they relocate to escape the harassment. The family now reportedly lives in a high-security community hundreds of kilometres from the cemetery where their little boy is buried. They no longer visit his grave, for fear of attracting more nasty attention.

It is impossible to imagine losing a child in a school shooting, let alone the surreal targeting by Jones's fanatical fans.

But it has all been allowed in the name of free speech. Jones, like other demagogues, has wrapped himself in the First Amendment, even titling his production company Free Speech Systems LLC.

And for years, despite pleas from the families of the dead children, social media organizations like Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Spotify and Twitter have enabled Jones, carrying his online rants, or providing links to them.

Effectively, Jones's followers are guns, loaded by their conspiracy theorist hero and stocked by some of the biggest digital companies in America, all for profit.

That may now be coming to an end. But then again, maybe not.

Nine of the Sandy Hook families have filed separate defamation lawsuits against Jones, in tandem with a fellow named Marcel Fontaine, who was wrongly identified by Jones as the gunman in the Parkland, Fla. school shooting last February.

Together, they have shamed Jones's social media platforms into removing his filth. For now. (Social media platforms, unlike the various level of American government, are not bound by the First Amendment, and can remove or censor whatever they like).

But Jones, the self-styled free speech warrior, is invoking the Texas Citizens Participation Act, a law that protects people from being silenced by costly litigation. He is actually demanding $100,000 in costs from the Pozner family, whom he casts as "public figures" who aren't entitled to the privacy normal citizens enjoy.

Heaven knows, he may actually win. And there are actually free-speech advocates who would cheer that.

I understand their arguments, and agree with many of them, at least in principle. I don't trust the government to decide which speech is acceptable and which speech offends.

But it's hard to imagine that the framers of the First Amendment could have imagined the confluence of a creep like Alex Jones with the reach and power of the internet in the age of Donald Trump, who once appeared on Jones's show.

"Your reputation is amazing," the future president told Jones. "I will not let you down."

Since then, Jones has claimed he and Trump have chatted often. Lately, he's been obliging Trump by telling his audience that special counsel Robert Mueller, the man investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, is a child rapist in league with pedophiles.

The birther president

In a sense, Trump and Jones are peas in the same pod of ugly-crazy. Both were early to recognize the vicious stupidity out there, and have used it to enrich and elevate themselves.

Trump, for years, peddled the lie that Barack Obama was foreign-born and was therefore an illegitimate president. He tells his rallies that undocumented immigrants, rapists and murderers "infest" America. Jones takes credit for Trump's applause line about the media being enemies of the people, with its obvious undertone of incitement.

And don't kid yourself: some of the Trump fans at those rallies are Alex-Jones-embracing conspiracy nuts. Just look at all the "We are Q" signs they brandish.

I am no jurist; I cannot suggest legal fixes that would protect the innocent victims of weaponized lies and vicious stupidity. Yes, we are living in an age of victimhood, but also of emboldened evil, and the justice system must recognize that. (And not just in the U.S.: Jones's second-biggest audience is right here in Canada).

Free speech has never been absolute, even in America. Alex Jones's horrifying incitement goes too far, even for the speech libertarian in me.

And if the Sandy Hook families lose in court on grounds of free speech, it will not only be unjust, it will be frightening.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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