The Current

Alex Jones has learned that 'speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,' says lawyer

After conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was ordered to pay $4 million US in damages over false claims about the Sandy Hook school shooting, lawyer Louis Tompros says courts are playing a role in fighting disinformation.

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones must pay $45.2M US in punitive damages over Sandy Hook claims

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in a courtroom in Austin, Texas, this week. He has been ordered to pay damages to the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)

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This story was originally published on Aug. 5, 2022. On Oct. 12, a Connecticut jury decided that Jones should pay $965 million US to people who suffered from his false claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. Read more here.

This week's ruling against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is part of a growing trend of using the courts to fight disinformation, according to a lawyer who has brought a case against Jones in the past.

"The basic idea … is that speech is free, but lies you have to pay for," said Louis Tompros, an intellectual property lawyer with firm WilmerHale and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

Tompros described a broader trend of what he calls "counter-disinformation litigation," which is "essentially using the legal system to fight lies that are otherwise going to get a lot of traction and get a lot of attention in the public."

"If you are going to not tell the truth, if you're going to live in a fantasy world and try to convince others that your lies are true, then you have to face the consequences of that," he told The Current's guest host Peter Armstrong.

On Thursday, InfoWars host Jones was ordered to pay more than $4 million US in damages to the parents of a child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Late Friday, a jury ordered Jones to also pay $45.2 million US in punitive damages.

The lawsuit was brought over Jones's repeated claims that the shooting was a hoax, and the victims and their grieving parents were paid actors. Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse Lewis was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, testified that they faced harassment after he made the claims.

During the trial in Austin, Texas, Jones did concede that the shooting was not a hoax, but was also reprimanded by the judge for lying under oath about his finances.

"You have to tell the truth in court, and you have to be accountable for lies that you tell if they cause harm outside of court," said Tompros. 

"That's what the point of defamation law is all about, and that's what this case ultimately stands for."

In a video posted on his website Thursday night, Jones called the reduced award a major victory.

"I admitted I was wrong. I admitted it was a mistake. I admitted that I followed disinformation but not on purpose. I apologized to the families. And the jury understood that. What I did to those families was wrong. But I didn't do it on purpose," he said.

LISTEN | Inside the chaotic trial of InfoWars' Alex Jones

Tompros represented California-based illustrator Matt Furie in a copyright infringement lawsuit over InfoWars' use of the Pepe the Frog cartoon character. The character was created by Furie in 2005 but later co-opted by right-wing conspiracy theorists online. The case reached a $15,000 US settlement in 2019, but Tompros recalled Jones not taking the issue seriously when he was questioned under oath, with Jones responding to questions in what sounded like a Darth Vader impression.

"He thought the whole thing was a joke. It wasn't a joke, we ultimately prevailed," Tompros said. 

"I think he's now seeing that in the Sandy Hook case, it's very much not a joke. He caused real harm and he's being called to account for it."

Jones also faces two other lawsuits over repeatedly claiming the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history was a hoax.

'Balancing act' around amplifying lies

Tompros said he thinks cases like this will become "more frequent and more successful as … viral lies become more common."

He pointed to the example of Dominion Voting Systems, which brought lawsuits against allies of former U.S. president Donald Trump who claimed without evidence that the company helped rig the 2020 U.S. presidential election in favour of Joe Biden.

Lawsuits against Trump's lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani are still ongoing.

But despite the growing trend in this type of litigation, he said the jury is still out as to the wider impact on disinformation.

"Whether that ultimately helps to push back against the post-truth era more broadly is yet to be seen. But the courts are doing their part," he said.

Tompros said that in some cases there is a risk of amplifying lies by drawing attention to them with a court case — citing the so-called Streisand Effect. (In 2003, the singer Barbara Streisand sued a photographer to have an aerial photograph of her waterfront home removed from his website, which documented coastal erosion in California. Prior to the case, the photograph had been downloaded six times; the ensuing publicity raised that number into the hundreds of thousands.)

The lawyer said it's "a balancing act" for anyone trying to fight disinformation in this way, but as more cases reach the courts, "that balance does shift in favour of using counter disinformation litigation more, and the upside begins to outweigh the downside." 

While amplification is a risk, Tompros argued it might not change much for those already heavily subscribed to conspiracy theories and disinformation online. 

"I'm not entirely sure that amongst [Jones's] diehard audience ... there's any credibility the justice system has in the first place," he said.

On the flip side, he sees that "there are some people willing to stand up and fight and say, 'I'm not going to let you get away with your lies. I'm going to call you on it, using the legal system, using the media, using every available tool.'"

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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