Editorial: Reckless speech still needs tighter controls
Today, families of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six teachers in 2012 were given a bit of justice. A jury ordered Infowars’ owner Alex Jones to pay $965 million to family members of eight victims of the shooting and an FBI agent, all of whom were harassed and threatened by right-wing conspiracy nuts who believed the incessant lies told on Jones’ infamous program.
Jones has spent years falsely describing the Newtown, Conn. shooting as a government hoax and has accused the victims’ families of being actors complicit in some far-fetched plot. That followers of Jones’ show were gullible enough to believe him is testament to how stupid, and insensitive, some American viewers have become.
But the victims’ families may be waiting longer than they should for any payment. Jones has put the parent company of Infowars into bankruptcy, yet continues to air his program — just recently scoffing at the notion that the families will get the money the jury awarded them, while also imploring his viewers to send money to his legal defense fund. Are his followers that stupid? Well, consider that Jones makes about $50 million annually hawking diet supplements, survivalist gear and gun paraphernalia on his broadcasts.
Jones’ Infowars program has not only profited from spreading lies about the Sandy Hook massacre, but he’s also profited and played a leading role in spreading lies about Pizzagate (the false claim that Democrats trafficked children from a Washington pizzeria (good grief, but yes, idiots actually believed that); the “great replacement theory” that ignited deadly neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Va.; Covid vaccines lies; and Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen leading to the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
But here’s the point: We’re in trouble as a nation if our laws can’t draw a distinction between responsible speech and speech that is deliberately false and reckless. We can’t prevent people from lying, nor from those gullible enough to throw their money away to unprincipled hucksters. But there has to be a reasonable burden to bear for the harm Jones has committed — not just in financial penalties, but in his ability to use public airways or mass digital or print distribution. Perhaps justice served will be if new laws crafted can reign in such madness.
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