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Speech is Free, But Lies You Pay For

The truth matters.

As the late businessman and philanthropist W. Clement Stone said, “Truth will always be truth, regardless of lack of understanding, disbelief or ignorance.”

That may sound like a quaint concept in these times of wild conspiracy theories spread by profiteering provocateurs and opportunistic politicians who prefer “alternative facts,” but occasionally we are reminded in the most graphic way that the truth does matter.

The defamation lawsuit against right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is, hopefully, one of those moments of clarity.

Jesse Lewis is one of the 20 young children, along with six adults, who were murdered by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.  His parents, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, sued Jones because of the false and odious claims he made about the bloody attack.

Jones spread to his legion of followers lies about the mass shooting.  He claimed the attack was “completely false,” that the grieving parents were “crisis actors” and that the federal government was behind the “hoax” to influence public opinion in favor of gun control.

Heslin testified during the trial that Jones’ fallacious diatribes made their lives a “living hell” because of harassment by conspiracy theorists. “As time went on, I truly realized how dangerous it was,” he testified during the trial last week in Austin, Texas. “My life has been threatened. I fear for my life, I fear for my safety.”

Jones testified that he no longer believes Sandy Hook was a hoax, but it is too late for that. He is just trying to save his own skin.  In a video posted on his Infowars website Jones was making excuses. “I followed disinformation, but not on purpose.”

Jones also tried to hide behind free speech claims, but his actions had nothing to do with the First Amendment, which protects individuals from government action for unpopular speech. What Jones did was defame Heslin and Lewis.

He acted negligently and purposefully, making repeated false statements that caused harm to Jesse’s parents, as well as the other Sandy Hook families. The jury has awarded Lewis and Heslin $4.1 million in compensatory damages but, more importantly, $45.2 million in punitive damages.

Barry Covert, a First Amendment lawyer, told the Associated Press, “With $50 million in all, the jury sent a huge, loud message that this behavior will not be tolerated. Everyone with a show like this who knowingly tells lies—juries will not tolerate it.”

Americans enjoy broad freedoms in the ways we think, speak and act, but those freedoms come with responsibilities. Jones’ malicious lies and profiteering off the suffering of others have been—and unfortunately continue to be—a descent into a depraved perversion of principles.

Wesley Ball, one of the attorneys for the parents, told the jury, “Send the message to those who desire to do the same: Speech is free.  Lies, you pay.”

Jones is going to pay dearly, as he should, and hopefully others who practice the dark art of defamation for profit while ignoring the truth, will also face a reckoning.



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