Will Alex Jones Pay for Peddling Far-Right Sandy Hook Conspiracies?
Few people in our era would seem to have as unbalanced a karmic checkbook as Alex Jones, the loudest man in Texas. For years, long before “fake news” was a thing, Jones, who started his career as the host of an underground local radio show in Austin, has been turning lies into money. As the world destabilized over the last 20 years, he grew in prominence. Now he presides over a money-printing machine in the shape of his InfoWars empire, which these days publishes a steady stream of racist and far-right agitprop mixed with conspiracy theories.
In a Travis County courtroom this week, Jones got a little closer to a potential comeuppance. It’s too bad Jones wasn’t in the courtroom for the initial hearings in two of five ongoing defamation cases against him and his media empire. Jones would have appreciated the 60 fasces decorating Travis County Judge Scott Jenkins’ courtroom; perhaps he might have seen the symbols as the sigh of some hidden hand. While the cases won’t go to trial for some time, there’s reason to think they have legs, and that Jones might stand to lose some cash. Though the arguments made in court were technical ones, Jenkins seemed skeptical of some core elements of the defense offered by Jones’ legal team.
The hearings were not as bizarre as Jones’ parental custody trial in April of last year, the most recent occasion the media descended on the Travis County courthouse to try to glean insights into Jones’ media empire. But the first case heard this week, strangely enough, revolves around a broadcast he did just before last year’s trial, at what was a particularly taxing personal moment for Jones. On April 22, 2017, Jones let loose in an hour-long segment he posted online with the title “Sandy Hook Vampires Exposed.”
It features Jones at his most animated, switching between wildly different subjects at whim. Much of the segment revolves around what has become a theme for Jones — the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Jones’ theory, honed over the intervening years, is that the entire thing was a hoax, manufactured by the government as a pretext to seize guns from Americans. No one died, the kids never existed, and their grieving parents are actors.
The case was brought by two of those parents, Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, who say that by implicating them in the alleged hoax, Jones has made their lives miserable, subjecting them to a constant stream of abuse. Last June, a woman named Lucy Richards was sentenced to five months in prison for stalking and threatening the pair. She was an InfoWars devotee.
Because Texas has a one-year statute of limitations for defamation, that one video will have to be the bulk of the case, even though Jones’ hounding of the Sandy Hook victims goes back almost six years. The equivocations in that video may allow Jones’ legal team to get him off the hook, but there’s still plenty for a potential jury to pore over.
In the April 2017 broadcast, Jones complains that the media takes his remarks out of context. “They’ll play the clip,” he said on camera, “but what’s on both ends of it, they won’t show you.” At Wednesday’s hearing on a motion by Jones to get the case dismissed, his lawyer, Mark Enoch, did exactly that. Enoch played an extended clip of the broadcast in the courtroom for the judge that contained a lot of rambling from Jones but omitted his strangest statements about the shooting.
“America kicked Hillary’s ass, not the Russians! Get it through your head!” Jones’ gravelly voice boomed at the conclusion of the made-for-court excerpt. “We’re the big swinging johnson, not the Russians!” The lawyer ended the clip before the original video cuts away to an ad for one of Jones’ nutritional supplements, called “Caveman.”
In the part of the video that wasn’t shown to the courtroom, Jones then returns to the subject of the shooting. He invites another InfoWars employee on to help him run down the list of reasons why Sandy Hook was faked. After the shooting, the other guy says, they were “finding people in the backwoods dressed up in SWAT gear,” their purpose unknown. “The police are smiling in some footage,” and “there’s never been even blurred images of bodies or anything.” Jones agrees, adding his own supporting evidence. “They never called rescue choppers,” he said.
Enoch said the clip makes clear that Jones was using hyperbole, and that “no reasonable person” would take everything he was saying exactly as he saying it. This, clearly, was not news reporting in the way that CNN does it, they argued.
Jenkins seemed puzzled by this, quoting the broadcast’s own language back to him. “‘We’re bringing you the truth’ is in your exhibit,” the judge said.
The next day, Mark Bankston, the Houston lawyer for the plaintiffs in both cases, brought the court a different story — that of Marcel Fontaine, a 24-year-old Boston man who was briefly identified by InfoWars as the shooter behind the February massacre in Parkland, Florida. InfoWars initially featured Fontaine’s photo, with an incorrect name attached, because it had appeared on the internet forum 4chan, a notorious hive of malignant trolls who frequently try to hoax news outlets in precisely this manner.
That hearing unfolded in much the same way. There may be technical reasons the case does not advance — though Jones’ lawyer in this case, Eric Taube, seemed primarily to be trying to shift the burden of the case from Alex Jones, the person, to one of the other legal entities that make up the media empire, including the wonderfully named Free Speech Systems, LLC. Still, there are reasons to think that the case would be a formidable challenge to Jones if it went to to trial. Misidentifying an innocent man as a mass shooter without doing any due diligence at all is, one would think, what defamation law is for.
Affidavits by journalists and experts on the subject — like the managing editor of snopes.com, a website that’s often tangled with Jones’ people — represented to the court that quoting 4chan without corroboration is not what journalists do. If that was the case, Jenkins said, wasn’t what Jones did in this case equivalent to driving “through a red light, sirens going and a train coming?” Taube maintained that the photo wasn’t published by Jones, and was added to the site by a reporter without his knowledge; Bankston argued that what happened at InfoWars was Jones’ responsibility, and that the photo went out under his name.
Once paperwork is in for each case, Jenkins has 30 days to render a decision on whether the cases will be dismissed or not. Jones can appeal that decision, and an out-of-court settlement is always possible, so we might never get to see Jones on the stand, like we did last year. But if we do, it ought to be a real show — one attended, most likely, by Kelly Jones, Alex’s ex-wife, who was seen at both hearings this week. The love between the two has not dimmed since the custody trial last year. “It’s absurd,” Kelly told a friend during one of the breaks. “They’re saying he’s a journalist.”