Every once in a while, we get a bracing reminder that free speech has its limits.
Alex Jones, the barking far-right conspiracy theorist, suffered a sweeping legal loss recently when judges in two states ruled against him in defamation lawsuits brought by the families of victims of a mass shooting nine years ago in Connecticut.
Jones, who has been banned on most social media and platforms such as YouTube, Apple and Spotify, has made a fortune tapping into the paranoia of American conservatives by undermining their faith in reality, facts and humanity.
For years, he has spewed bile to the millions who watch his videos, listen to his podcasts and read InfoWars, his fake news website. He doesn’t just spread bizarre lies, he uses his platform to hawk dietary supplements, fake COVID cures, bulletproof vests and other accoutrements for the coming apocalypse.
If something terrible happens in America, you can bet Jones will have an insane take: The 9/11 attacks were an inside job by the Bush administration. The government uses “weather weapons” to kill Americans. The Pentagon has developed a bomb that makes people gay.
He promoted “pizzagate,” the bogus claim that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex-trafficking ring in the basement of a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that inspired a believer to shoot the place up.
But his most abhorrent lies are about the tragedy that befell Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 first-graders and six adults were killed by a disturbed young man armed with a semiautomatic rifle.
The funerals had just begun when Jones launched a campaign of terror against their families.
He called the tragedy a “hoax” unleashed by gun control advocates. He accused grieving parents of being crisis actors who faked their children’s deaths. Never one for consistency, he also claimed the victims had never existed, nor had their school, which one of his frequent guests often said was actually a “toxic waste dump.”
When the families of victims finally sued him in 2018 for defamation, infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy, Jones railed that they were puppets of an establishment “using those dead children to try to destroy the 1st Amendment, not just the 2nd Amendment.”
This fall, judges in Texas and Connecticut ruled that Jones had so flouted the courtroom rules of discovery that the defamation suits against him could not proceed. He lost by default.
The judge in Texas blamed Jones’ “flagrant bad faith and callous disregard” for the rules of discovery because he failed to provide documents — including financial information — ordered by the court.
Jones’ disregard for the law (and the truth) is hardly unique.
It seems to exemplify a current mindset in right-wing circles that legal orders are mere suggestions, that election results are valid only if their side wins, that any crime committed by an ally can be forgiven.
Whether it’s Jones, the pro-Trump rioters of Jan. 6 or former Trump administration officials such as Stephen K. Bannon, who defied a congressional subpoena, there’s an apparent belief that laws, to paraphrase the tax-dodging hotelier Leona Helmsley, are for the little people.
I’m hardly the first person to lay blame for this trend at the feet of former President Trump, who set the imperious tone that has led to so many recent legal, political and moral travesties.
No wonder Bannon thought he could ignore a subpoena to testify before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump pardoned Bannon, who was charged with defrauding donors to a construction fund for Trump’s execrable border wall, before Bannon had even been tried for the crime.
But Bannon may yet pay for his arrogance. A federal grand jury indicted him on two criminal contempt counts — failing to appear for his deposition with the House select committee and failing to produce subpoenaed documents. Each carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail. Late last month, the committee also subpoenaed Jones. My guess is he'll show up.
For the longest time, I thought Trump was displaying his typical braggadocio when he claimed he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a single supporter. Now it appears a truer statement has never been uttered. The man has upended the cherished notion that we are, as John Adams put it, a nation of laws, not of men. Trump has warped his supporters’ sense of right and wrong, which presents dangers to our democracy that were once inconceivable.
In one of the defamation lawsuits, families of Sandy Hook shooting victims said that Jones' stream of lies has forced them “to endure malicious and cruel abuse at the hands of ruthless and unscrupulous people,” and that they have faced physical confrontation and harassment, death threats and a “sustained barrage” of harassment on social media.
In 2017, Lucy Richards, a Florida woman who believed the school shooting was a hoax, was sentenced to five months in federal prison for threatening to kill Lenny Pozner, whose 6-year-old son, Noah, was murdered in his classroom.
“I’m sure he wishes this was false and he could embrace Noah, hear Noah’s heartbeat and hear Noah say, 'I love you, Dad,' " said U.S. District Judge James Cohn as he sentenced Richards. “Your words were cruel and insensitive. This is reality and there is no fiction. There are no alternative facts.”
Alex Jones will probably never take responsibility for the unutterable pain he has caused. But at least he will be made to pay. In both Texas and Connecticut, juries will determine the damages he owes the families who sued him.
May they put him out of business.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.