AUSTIN, Texas — When viral lies harm individuals, are the courts their best refuge? A lawsuit to decide how much conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones should pay a Sandy Hook family for defaming them attempts to answer that question.
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, the parents of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, are seeking $150 million in compensatory damages for years of torment and threats they have endured as a result of Jones’ lies about them. on Infowars, its Austin, Texas-based website and broadcast. They are suing him in the first of three trials in which juries will decide how much he must pay the relatives of 10 people killed in the December 14, 2012 mass shooting in Sandy Hook for spreading lies that they were actors in a “false flag”. operation, planned by the government as a pretext for arms control.
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Last year, Jones lost a series of Sandy Hook libel cases by default, setting the stage for lawsuits for damages.
Heslin, Lewis and JT Lewis, Jesse’s brother, will testify this week.
More important than money, the parents said, is society’s verdict on a culture in which viral misinformation damages lives and destroys reputations, but those who spread it are rarely held accountable. “Speech is free, but lies pay,” Mark Bankston, the parents’ attorney, told the jury in his opening statement last week. “It’s about creating change.”
But the lawsuit shows how difficult it is to counter the opinions of hard-line conspiracy theorists. During nearly three days of testimony last week, Infowars representative Daria Karpova advanced false allegations, even refusing to rule out the possibility that the trial itself was staged. She chose Jones as the victim, worrying about his health and saying the Sandy Hook lawsuits had cost him “millions”.
The claim allowed the families’ attorneys to share documents with the jury showing that Infowars has raked in more than $50 million in revenue annually in recent years.
At the heart of the lawsuit is a June 2017 episode of NBC’s “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly,” in which Kelly profiles Jones. On the show, Heslin protested Jones’ refusal to shoot. He recalled his final moments with Jesse, saying, “I held my son with a bullet hole in his head.”
Afterwards, Jones and Owen Shroyer, a Jones lieutenant at Infowars, aired shows implying that Heslin had lied. “Will there be a clarification from Heslin or Megyn Kelly?” Shroyer said on Infowars. “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
Lawyers say the three trials hold lessons for other cases against conspiracy defendants, from Jan. 6 insurgents to Trump allies prosecuted for falsely claiming voting machine makers helped ‘steal’ the state. 2020 presidential election. Jones is also under scrutiny for his role in the events surrounding the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
“These Sandy Hook parents spent years of their lives and sacrificed whatever was left of their privacy to bring to light the peddlers of misinformation, not only to seek justice for their children, but to bring the people who profit from the tragedy to consider the consequences of their actions,” said Karen Burgess, a litigator with Burgess Law in Austin, who represented Dominion Voting Systems when she was sued by Texas conspiracy theorists who said the company had helped rig the 2020 vote. Facing court sanctions, conspiracy theorists dropped their suit against the company.
Lawyers for the Sandy Hook families say a verdict, expected this week in the first trial, could send a signal to other conspiracy providers about the cost of online lies and set off a chain of events that could shut Infowars down.
Yet the way forward is unclear. On Friday, Jones filed Infowars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems, into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which usually automatically stops all pending litigation. Free Speech Systems, however, requested that the bankruptcy court lift this automatic stay, so that the current lawsuit can continue until a verdict is reached. That motion is to be heard Monday morning in a bankruptcy court in Victoria, Texas. Travis County District Court Judge Maya Guerra Gamble said the trial will continue.
Lawyers for the families say a grand jury award this week as well as bankruptcy could threaten Infowars’ operations, but many details about Jones’ current finances are murky.
For now, the filing puts Sandy Hook’s two other damages lawsuits on hold, both scheduled for September.
In court last week, lawyers for Jones launched a defense advanced by other defendants in politically charged defamation cases: Our national discourse has become so polluted with misinformation, they said, that who really knows what is true or false?
Federico Andino Reynal, Jones’s attorney, blamed errors in mainstream media reporting on Sandy Hook for the false theories spread by Jones.
“He had seen what he perceived to be so many lies, so many cover-ups and so much handwashing of the facts that he had become biased,” Reynal said. “He was looking at the world through dirty glasses. And if you look at the world through dirty glasses, everything you see is dirty.
But Infowars staffers testified that they did not check readily available facts about Sandy Hook — or much else — before airing their inflammatory claims. Lawyers for Heslin and Lewis, using internal emails and testimony from Infowars employees, showed how Jones and his top lieutenants ignored several warnings that continuing to spread the Sandy Hook lies would harm survivors and lead Infowars in legal trouble.
In a videotaped deposition, a former employee, Rob Jacobson, said he repeatedly issued these warnings to Infowars staff members, “only to be greeted with laughter and jokes.”
The NBC episode, which was shown in court, was particularly striking. In it, Jones made a variety of damaging misrepresentations, including dismissing a 2017 suicide bombing that killed 22 adults and children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, as an attack on ” a group of hip liberals”, who support “Islamist”. immigration.
Shroyer also testified that he did not fact check a false report on the Heslin defaming episode because he did not have time.
During the trial last week, Jones’ seat at the defense table often remained empty. His attorney, Reynal, declined to say whether he would testify, adding that Jones was in charge of his defense. Reynal told the judge that Jones’ absences were due to a “medical condition” which Jones, speaking outside the courthouse, described as an untreated hernia.
But he continues to air his show, where he and Shroyer derided the trial last week, violate the judge’s order not to comment on it. When Jones came to court, he arrived in a motorcade and sat in the courtroom surrounded by bodyguards. Last week, Reynal threw a middle finger in the face of the families’ attorney in an exhibit dispute that nearly ended in a fight.
The trial proceedings took their toll on Heslin and Lewis. They hired security after spotting people waiting for them outside their hotel, and they heard Infowars loyalists describe them as pawns in the pursuit of Jones’ online influence.
During his testimony in court Thursday, Shroyer suggested that it was the lawsuits, not his and Jones’ lies, that exacerbated the families’ suffering. “I’m very upset that this is continuing,” he said, citing its “huge negative effects on my career and livelihood”.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.