Within hours of Alex Jones and Infowars providing thousands of emails to lawyers for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by surviving family members of the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, the Huffington Post contacted Mr. Jones. We have your emails, they said. We’re going to publish them. Do you want to comment?
And when lawyers for Mr. Jones went to court in Connecticut this week, NPR read the pleadings filed by the plaintiffs before Mr. Jones had a chance to do so. NPR didn’t call to ask for comment. It just read the plaintiffs’s pleading and ran with it as breaking news.
Just who leaked this material to the press in an effort to keep the press at Mr. Jones’s throat isn’t clear, even if no one will admit to having done so. Indeed, one of the law firms involved in this litigation regularly holds press conferences, replete with a blue background for a stage worthy of the Academy Awards, the firm’s name blazoned on the screen for all to see, no matter what is being said.
There is no mob quite so dangerous as a self-righteous mob, and, believe me, there’s a mob of would-be censors ready to limit free speech in the name of what makes them comfortable.
And then there is Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Did a father of one of the Newtown child victims commit suicide this week? It’s Alex Jones’s fault, the Senator said, before any facts were known. Murphy’s a one-trick pony, having ridden the Sandy Hook shootings all the way from obscurity to the U.S. Senate.
It’s open season on Alex Jones. He’s unpopular, and the forces of righteousness are aligned against him. Mr. Jones’s speech, we are told, is toxic. It must be stopped. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter have de-platformed Mr. Jones.
But still Mr. Jones and Infowar continue to broadcast.
What’s all this about?
It’s about the marketplace of ideas. What critics of Mr. Jones fail to realize is that ideas matter. People listen to Mr. Jones because he provides them with a forum. Some of the things folks say to Mr. Jones, some of the things Mr. Jones says, make folks uncomfortable. No one is forced to listen to Mr. Jones. No one is forced to watch InfoWars. People do so because they find something they need there.
Rather than attacking the messenger, folks ought to ask what forces in American life make the message appealing.
I represent Mr. Jones and InfoWars in Connecticut lawsuits brought by surviving family members of victims in Sandy Hook. A separate suit is filed by surviving family members in Texas. Both suits are based on the premise Mr. Jones spread the opinion that Sandy Hook never happened. That crisis actors played roles to create mass hysteria. That the government benefits from this hysteria by making it easier to do such things as limit the right to bear arms.
This is an outlandish form an old genre in American life – the conspiracy theory. Indeed, the Connecticut complaints against Mr. Jones read in part like an undergraduate term paper, replete with a footnote to Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, published in 1964. The plaintiffs’s lawyers don’t realize that Hofstadter is Exhibit A in Mr. Jones’s defense – conspiracy theory is old news in American life. Doubt it? Look at the back of a dollar bill and try to explain all the symbolism on it.
I’ll leave to the courtroom battle the case involving Mr. Jones. Among the questions to be addressed in that case: Did Mr. Jones host others on a talk show who called Sandy Hook a hoax? If so, isn’t that protected speech? Did Mr. Jones entertain the possibility that it was a hoax, after listening to guests on his show? If so, isn’t that protected speech? Did some people who viewed Mr. Jones’s broadcasts then harass surviving family members of Sandy Hook? If so, what strained theory of causation makes that the fault of Mr. Jones? And if Mr. Jones did believe the shooting was a hoax, how is that different from believing the government killed JFK?
And then there is the central question: How many of the allegations now hurled causally at Mr. Jones are about things he actually said? Some of the allegations now have the status of urban legend. Mr. Jones has become a cipher, a symbol for the hatred of the self-righteous.
There was a time when victims of the horrific were honored, pitied, and provided the time and space they needed for respectable grief. Today victims become instant celebrities and props for the political interests of others. Enterprising victims become spokespersons and public figures. We’ve weaponized pathos. It’s small wonder the misused victims feel even more crushing despair when the glare of sympathy is redirected to newer, more fashionable and au courant victims.
We used to say that no person could be a judge in their own case. Now we flock to the aggrieved to let them pass judgment on the rest of us. Is it any wonder our politics is rudderless and empty suits like Chris Murphy can ride a national tragedy to national office?
I’ve taken to watching Infowars as I prepare to defend Mr. Jones and his companies. Here’s what I have learned thus far – people watch the show, and then call in to the show, to be heard. Mr. Jones listens. He is a far more reasonable listener than many of the callers. Where will these callers go if censors succeed in silencing Infowars?
One theory of freedom of speech is that it serves the purpose of finding the truth by testing ideas in the marketplace of ideas. Hence, the antidote to hateful speech is no enforced silence, but more speech. “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence,” The Supreme Court wrote in Whitney v. California, a 1927 decision upholding the right of a Communist to advocate overthrow of the United States government. The same rationale led the American Civil Liberties Union to defend the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, through a community of holocaust survivors.
ACLU has retreated today behind a barrier of cowardice, preferring comfortable conformity and solicitude for the censor to the risks that free speech imposes. We are all worse off as a result.
So keep an eye on the Huffington Post. Rest assured that the tongue-clucking editors will select the most outrageous emails they can find. Look! Their pieces will scream. Look at these outrageous ideas! Did the CIA really stage Sandy Hook!? They will ridicule. All this in support of some version of orthodoxy.
I am far less frightened by the cranky opinions of the village eccentric than I am by the demand of the censor. From social media comes the avalanche of hate, either from the left of the right — not long ago I was labeled racist after posting a picture I thought funny; not one of those who were so quick to scorn me actually critically engaged in a discussion of what made a photo of beer bottles into a sign of racism. Politicians want more. They want limits on speech. On what can be said and how it can be said. You know where that leads, don’t you? To censorhip.
I can ignore the crank. I don’t have to watch Infowars or MSNBC. But the government official with a warrant is harder to ignore. To the government I must yield my liberty, even my life. The government scares me in a way Alex Jones never will.
I expect to win the Alex Jones lawsuit. Not because his speech is popular – it is not in the communities close to Sandy Hook. I expect to win it because there is a long history of freedom of expression, even of crazy conspiracy theories, in the United States. Mr. Jones isn’t an outlier. What’s changed is our political culture. Perhaps a goodly number of Americans are prepared to sacrifice the First Amendment on an altar of solicitude. I’m betting – and hoping — that won’t happen in the case against Infowars, regardless of what the Huffington Post publishes in the days to come.
Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.