Johnny Depp’s attorney has weighed in on Alex Jones’s latest defamation trial over the Sandy Hook massacre, saying that “lies are not protected” by the First Amendment.
Benjamin Chew appeared on Law & Crime on Tuesday to speak about the case currently playing out in a courtroom in Connecticut, where jurors will decide how much in damages the far-right conspiracy theorist must pay to families of victims of the 2012 mass shooting.
Mr Chew, who was one of the lead members of Mr Depp’s legal team during his successful defamation case against Amber Heard, pointed out that the courtroom is “a very different environment” to the extremist’s conspiracy show Infowars when it comes to being able to spread “heinous lies”.
“Alex Jones ain’t in Russia anymore. This is the United States and lies which hurt people – especially heinous lies, horrific lies, are not and have never been protected under the First Amendment,” he said.
“So the requirements of being an effective messenger may conflict with one’s legal obligation and this is where the rubber hits the road.
“And Alex Jones is going to find out – as he found out in Texas – that the courtroom is a very different environment than his talk show.”
Mr Chew had been asked about the courtroom testimony of Clinton Watts, an expert witness on the topic of social media, disinformation, and fake news, who took the stand earlier on Tuesday.
Mr Watts, who testified before Congress about Russia’s online misinformation campaign in the 2016 presidential election, spoke about footage of Mr Jones branding the Sandy Hook massacre a “hoax”, calling him an “effective messenger”.
Mr Watts said that Mr Jones was “highly effective in terms of content production” as he used several methods to get his message across: a fear of disarming Americans of their guns, the demonisation of a specific group (using “they” and “us” rhetoric) and stoking anger by saying there is a plot.
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He is building a community around this false narrative with the audience, said Mr Watts.
Mr Jones himself is expected to testify in the trial on Wednesday or Thursday.
Mr Jones began spouting lies almost immediately after the 2012 massacre at Aandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The right-wing extremist claimed on his conspiracy site that the mass shooting was “a giant hoax” and that the child victims murdered in the attack were “actors”.
He continued to push the lies to his followers for years claiming it was a “false flag” operation.
While Mr Jones profited financially from spreading his lies, the victims’ families were subjected to years of in-person and online harassment and threats from his followers.
Several lawsuits were brought against the conspiracy theorist – all of which he lost.
Last month, the first suit finally went to trial in Texas and Mr Jones was ordered to pay $4.11m in compensatory damages and $45.2m in punitive damages to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of six-year-old victim Jesse Lewis.
In testimony at that trial, Mr Jones admitted that he knew the massacre was real.
Jurors in Connecticut will now decide how much Mr Jones must pay the families in damages in the second trial.
Mr Chew’s comments about the case come after he accused Ms Heard of lying about being a victim of Mr Depp’s abuse during the former couple’s defamation trial in Fairfax, Virginia.
Mr Depp sued his ex-wife for defamation over a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post where she described herself as a victim of domestic abuse and spoke of feeling “the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out”.
During the high-profile, televised trial, both Mr Depp and Ms Heard took the stand and accused one another of abuse.
One of the most damning accusations came when Ms Heard described in graphic detail how Mr Depp allegedly raped her with a liquor bottle in Australia in 2015. Mr Depp, meanwhile, accused his ex-wife of severing the top of his finger after she threw a liquor bottle at him.
In June, a jury of seven sided with Mr Depp and determined that Ms Heard had defamed him on all three counts.
Jurors awarded Mr Depp $10m in compensatory damages and $5m in punitive damages, before Fairfax County Circuit Judge Penney Azcarate reduced the latter to the state’s legal limit of $350,000.
Ms Heard won one of her three counterclaims against her ex-husband, with the jury finding that Mr Depp – via his lawyer Adam Waldman – defamed her by branding her allegations about a 2016 incident “an ambush, a hoax”. She was awarded $2m in compensatory damages but $0 in punitive damages, leaving the Aquaman actor $8.35m out of pocket.
The legal battle between the two stars is expected to continue to rumble on after they both filed appeals against the verdict.