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As an attorney who has personally taken on a conspiracy theorist who believes himself above the law, I have followed the litigation in Texas against Alex Jones with keen interest.
Alex Jones whining about the unfairness of the legal system is the height of hypocrisy. Jones built an alt-right media empire reliant on legal protections that shielded him from being held responsible for the very real harm that he caused to innocent people. His ability to spout hate and vitriol is largely protected by the First Amendment and other state and federal laws. He’s used the platform provided by the protections in the American legal system to peddle snake-oil remedies around the globe and line his own pocketbook. And yet, even in the event of a judgment, his personal assets are largely shielded by laws that prohibit creditors from taking his home, his retirement accounts, and many kinds of other assets. He thrives precisely because of the rule of law.
But sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander. Having been haled into court for his defamatory attacks on innocent parents who lost their children at Sandy Hook, Jones steadfastly declined to abide by the rules of civil procedure and orders of the court. He refused to turn over documents and other evidence that likely demonstrated his knowledge that his statements about Sandy Hook and about the victims’ parents were false all along. He’s outrageously called upon his army of disbelievers to deliver the plaintiffs’ counsel’s “head on a pike.” Jones presumes the legal system should protect him, but should not govern him.
We saw the same duplicity in our recent litigation against another Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist, James Fetzer. There, Fetzer refused to follow the rules of civil procedure — to be held to the same standard as any other litigant in our judicial system. The court applied the rules and correctly found that Fetzer had defamed our client, Lenny Pozner, whose young son was undeniably and tragically murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A jury applied the rules given to it by the court, considered the evidence and awarded Pozner $450,000.
Fetzer, like Jones, refused to abide by court orders. His intentional, repeated violation of court orders resulted in sanctions of another $650,000. And yet, like Jones, Fetzer complains incessantly that the judge, and the legal system itself, in our case was unfair. But like Jones, Fetzer still benefits from rules and laws that enable him to shield nearly all of his assets from that $1.1 million judgment.
This double standard is representative of a larger wave of duplicity among right-wing firebrands. They wring their hands and gnash their teeth at the alleged erosion of American values. They espouse a supposed love of country and cry for a return to the good old days of law and order. But they are the first to cry foul when held to account for their flagrant violations of those very laws and rules.
Freedom of speech is treasured in America, but even fundamental rights come with limitations. Speech is protected, for instance, but it is illegal to threaten to assassinate the president. We’ve enacted laws that make it a crime to shoot another person you may think wronged you in some way. We attempt to protect the greater public by outlawing drunk driving, mandating seatbelt use, and – gasp! – wearing masks in the face of a global pandemic. Some people, no matter the evidence, refuse to recognize or comply with these social pacts. And nothing does more to both communicate these false narratives or shield those who propagate them from even so much as the public shame that ought to attach to spreading such hurtful lies than the internet.
The American court system is uniquely positioned to address the demonstrably false, harmful speech propagated and spread through a largely unregulated internet like a viral alt-right opium. We have rules in place that dictate what behavior or speech is legally acceptable, and a process by which we can legally prove certain speech to be false. Our juries determine the cost associated with illegal, harmful speech. And today, where the majority of people understand on some level that we are fundamentally connected to and impacted by the actions of others, pursuing people who wish to take advantage of the benefits of our legal system while simultaneously and intentionally attempting to avoid legal obligations imposed by that system is critical.
From election results to international influence on our political system, the truth matters – and is at risk – now more than ever. I applaud the lawyers in Texas who have taken on this righteous battle, and look forward to hearing what the jury decides are the damages Alex Jones rightfully owes. Nothing short of our democracy depends on it.