Explainer: Is the Alex Jones trial about free speech rights?

CHICAGO (AP) — Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones arrives at a Texas courthouse to stand trial for defamation over a hoax called the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack with the words “Save the 1” on tape covering his mouth.

Although Jones portrayed the lawsuit against him as an attack on the First Amendment, the parents sued him, saying his statements were so malicious and outright false that they were protected by the constitutional clause on the limitation of speech. fell out.

The ongoing trial in Austin, which is based on Jones’ far-right Infowars website and his parent company, stems from a 2018 lawsuit brought by Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son was killed in a 2012 attack . Along with 19 other first-graders and six teachers.

Jones is expected to testify in his defense on Tuesday.

Here’s a look at how the case relates to the First Amendment:

Are All Defamation Lawsuits First Amendment Cases?

they are. Defamation laws evolved through decades of US Supreme Court decisions on what is and isn’t protected speech.

Generally, the jury’s first question to answer is in the trial whether speech qualifies as unprotected defamation. If it does, they address the question of loss.

Jones’ test largely skipped over the first question and went straight to the second. From the beginning, it focused not on whether Jones should be compensated, but how much.

Why is his test different?

Jones completely seemed to sabotage his chance to argue that his speech was protected by not following orders to hand over important evidence, such as emails, which the parents hoped he would prove. that he knew all that his statements were false.

This prompted Judge Maya Guerra Gamble to file a rare default judgment, with the parents declaring the winner before the trial began.

Judges have issued similar rulings in other lawsuits against Jones.

“I don’t know why they didn’t cooperate,” said Stephen D. Solomon, founding editor of New York University’s First Amendment Watch. “It’s really weird. … It’s so weird not even given myself a chance to defend myself.

This may suggest that Jones knew that some evidence would ruin his defense.

“It’s fair to assume that[Jones]and his team didn’t think they had a viable defense …

Have both sides mentioned the First Amendment?

Yes. During opening statements last week, plaintiff attorney Mark Bankston told jurors that it does not protect against libelous speech.

“Speech is free,” he said, “but for lies you have to pay.”

Jones’ lawyer Andino Renal said the case is important for freedom of expression.

And Jones made similar arguments in a statement.

“If public events and questioning freedom of expression are banned because it can hurt someone’s feelings, then we are no longer in America,” he said.

Jones, who said the actors staged the shooting under the pretext of tightening gun control, later admitted that it happened.

What are the main elements of defamation?

Defamation must involve someone making a false statement of fact publicly – usually through the media – and asserting that it is true. An opinion cannot be defamatory. The statement would also have caused real damage to one’s reputation.

The parents who sued Jones say their lies about their child’s death damaged his reputation and prompted death threats from Jones’ followers.

Is it easy for non-public people to prove defamation?

Yes. They only have to show that a false statement was made carelessly.

In 1964 New York Times v Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that the bar should be higher for public figures because their scrutiny is so important to democracy. They must prove “actual malice” that a false statement was “made with the knowledge that it was a lie or with reckless disregard for whether or not it was false.”

Are the parents public figures?

His lawyers say he clearly does not belong to the category of politicians or celebrities who have voluntarily stepped into the public sphere.

However, the High Court has held that those who engage in public debates temporarily can become temporary public figures.

Jones argues that Heslin did the same by entering the national debate on guns by advocating for stricter gun laws on TV and in front of Congress.

Is damages being sought?

The plaintiffs are seeking $150 million for emotional distress as well as reputational and punitive damages.

Renal told jurors that his client had been given an adequate sentence, causing millions of dollars in damages being booted from major social media platforms.

He asked them to award $1 to the plaintiff.

Can the First Amendment affect test results?

Indirectly, yes.

Jones cannot argue that he is not liable for damages on the grounds that his speech was protected. The judge has already ruled that he is liable. But as a way of limiting damages, his lawyers could argue that his speech was protected.

“Jurors can say[Jones’s defamatory statement]is really something that we don’t want to punish,” said First Amendment expert Kevin Goldberg of the Maryland-based Freedom Forum.

Could Jones have won if the trial was only about free speech?

He could argue that his statements were hyperbolic opinion – that wild, non-factual exaggeration is his schism.

But it would have been difficult to convince the jurors that he was merely expressing opinion and protest.

“It was a verifiable fact that the massacre took place at Sandy Hook,” Solomon said. “It’s not opinion. It’s true.” Even if the parents were deemed public figures, applying high standards, “I think Alex Jones would still lose out,” he said.

But Gupta said it is always a challenge to prove defamation.

“I would not discount the possibility that Jones could have prevailed,” he said. “Trying to guess what the jury will find is always a folly.”

Can the Supreme Court be sympathetic to any of Jones’ appeals?

Conservatives and liberal justices have found that some deeply offensive speech is preserved.

In 2011, the High Court voted 8-to-1 to reverse a decision against Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church for military funerals, declaring that God hates America for tolerating homosexuality. .

The ruling said, “As a nation we have chosen … even to protect hurt speech … to ensure that we do not disrupt public debate.”

But there are important differences between this and the Jones case.

“Both were extreme, outrageous, shocking, reprehensible. But the Westboro Baptist Church was also explicitly political and not defamatory… not about the reputation of any one individual,” Goldberg said.

He continued: “I would be surprised if (Jones’s) case ever ended up in the Supreme Court.”


For more AP’s coverage of the school shooting:

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