Democrats reacted with outraged contempt after then-candidate Donald Trump pledged in 2016 to “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Trump’s proposal, Brown political-science professor Corey Brettschneider wrote in a Politico piece typical of the response, “would run contrary to our long-established understanding of the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press.”
So what’s with their crowing over the nearly $1 billion a Connecticut jury ordered Infowars host Alex Jones to pay the families of eight children murdered at Sandy Hook elementary school?
Jones behaved reprehensibly. He repeatedly ranted on the airwaves that the 2012 massacre was a false-flag hoax perpetuated by the government in order to justify gun control, the parents were “crisis actors” and that the victims either never existed or might have been murdered by their own parents. Some people believed this garbage; 20% of Americans told a poll they think mass shootings are faked. Families reported receiving death threats and vicious communications from Jones’ followers.
Jones finally admitted the tragedy was “100% real” this past August.
Jones has a long history of cruelty and reckless rhetoric for profit. “He has had a role in spreading virtually every incendiary lie to dominate headlines over the past decade, including Pizzagate, the false claim that Democrats trafficked children from a Washington pizzeria; the ‘great replacement theory’ that ignited deadly neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia; Covid vaccine lies; and the 2020 presidential election falsehoods that brought a violent mob to the Capitol on January 6, 2021,” noted The New York Times.
Despite committing a litany of the most egregious crimes against journalism, however, Jones is a journalist. Not a good journalist. Nor a responsible one. Because no one, certainly no media organization I can think of, can credibly or clearly draw a line between a “conspiracy theorist” like Jones and an acceptable “mainstream” publication that speculates about nonexistent links between Saddam and Al Qaeda, missing WMDs that were actually found or quashes the Hunter Biden laptop story before finally admitting that it’s actually a real thing. Let he who is without misinformation cast the first editorial—not that self-awareness has made much of an appearance following the Jones verdict.
Suing the media is hard because in a world where reporters are human, turning honest mistakes into legal causes of action would make journalism impossible. The wide latitude given to press organizations has a downside: it protects bad actors like Jones.
In the Jones case, however, the legal system was also a justice system. Defamation is a clearly defined exception to the First Amendment; the pain and trouble Jones caused a group of grieving parents merits punitive compensation. The guilty verdict was justified. But the $1 billion damage award?
Hell yes, say liberal commentators. WBUR, the NPR affiliate in Boston, said $1 billion “is a start.”
“A small but crucial consolation,” observed Slate.
“Alex Jones’ lawsuit losses are not enough,” an editorialist opined at NBC News’ website.
“Tonight, I come to you with a spring in my step, a song in my heart, emotionally and spiritually refreshed,” said Stephen Colbert. “You know how, as humans, we have to accept the fact that, sometimes, bad things happen to good people? Well, by the grace of God, sometimes, bad things happen to Alex Jones. That’s a good thing.”
The tap-dancing on Jones’ presumed fiscal grave falls along ideological lines. Democrats, it seems, do approve of Trump’s wish to “open up the libel laws”—when the perpetrator is, like Jones, a Trumpian Republican.
In 1994 an angry jury in New Mexico ordered McDonald’s to pay $2.9 million (equivalent to $5.8 million today) to a woman who was severely scalded by a spill of the fast food chain’s coffee. The verdict, subsequently reduced by the trial judge to a quarter of that amount, was dubbed the “poster child of excessive lawsuits” by ABC News and energized the tort reform movement.
A fact that particularly agitated the jury was that McDonald’s had received 700 other complaints about burns from its coffee, which was hotter than industry norms, yet had refused to lower the temperature. The plaintiff’s injuries were severe; she required reconstructive surgery.
Even by the eye-popping standards of some of the biggest libel verdicts in recent history, the scale of the Jones figure is breathtaking. Oberlin College ordered to pay $33 million to a local bakery it helped to smear as racist; Amber Heard dinged for $10 million for falsely accusing Johnny Depp of abuse; blogger Tasha K told to remit $4 million to Cardi B for saying she was a coke-addicted prostitute suffering from sexually transmitted diseases; other high-profile verdicts amount to pennies on the dollar compared to the Jones verdict.
Alex Jones’ behavior was repugnant. But no one was injured as a result. Was his behavior 200 times more egregious or harmful than McDonald’s?
Conservatives, Adam Serwer writes in an Atlantic essay sarcastically titled “The Martyrdom of Alex Jones,” “defend their own right to defame others while insisting that the law itself should be changed to make it easier for powerful political figures to silence their critics. What they conceive of is a society, backed by right-wing control of the federal judiciary, in which they have a right to say whatever they want about you, and you have a right to shut up and like it.”
Unlike Serwer, I don’t know what conservatives are secretly thinking. I do know that, whatever was said, no matter how outrageous the speech was, a $1 billion judgement sends a chilling message to anyone who expresses themselves in a public space. The message of the Jones verdict is not that lies or disinformation are harmful, but that there are two classes of libel defendants in American courts—one organized, corporate, connected and protected by judges and fellow members of the establishment and thus barely accountable; the other individual, ostracized, on the outside and thus fair game for jurors and judges seeking to make outsized points.
The gleeful reactions of otherwise sober editorialists to this bloated verdict speaks to how rageful partisanship has become a blinding force in American politics. Defeating an ideological adversary is no longer enough. Like the nuclear weapons that can destroy humanity many times over, nothing short of radical overkill will do. Foes must be obliterated, proportionality and oft-repeated devotions to free speech be damned.