Alex Jones of Infowars sued, First Amendment not threatened
Conspiracies are usually things we laugh at. The claims are so often outlandish with little to no credible evidence supporting it. Whereas most of us can laugh off the absurdity of the theory claiming Katy Perry is secretly late child star JonBenet Ramsey, there are some that gain followers and turn sinister quickly. With the help of publicity, these can reach large audiences and blur the line between theory and reality.
Alex Jones, conspiracy theorist and founder of Infowars, has quite the imagination; he has theorized that the government manipulates weather and puts chemicals in the water that "turns the friggin' frogs gay." However, his theories have seeped their way into politics. His show heavily propagated the Birther movement, which questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama's birth certificate, and the Pizzagate conspiracy, which claimed that Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, had emails that made way for several restaurants and ranking officials to create a child-sex ring. Both of these theories had strong effects on the 2016 presidential election.
In light of the heated gun control debate, he questioned the existence of school shootings. He denounced the 2017 Vegas shooting "as phony as a three dollar bill or as Obama's birth certificate." His most vocal conspiracy pertaining to gun violence is the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting and whether it actually occurred or not. Although he has been heavily criticized, three parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting have now sued Jones for defamation.
On one hand, it's easy to laugh at Jones angrily yelling and slamming papers on a desk and dismiss him as a lunatic. However, we must keep in mind that too many people in this nation actually accept what he says as truth. His theories raised skepticism that ultimately impacted many Americans' political actions and voting decisions. In June of 2017, political commentator and journalist Megyn Kelly hosted an interview with Jones on NBC.
Jones did not stop at Sandy Hook or Vegas to perpetrate conspiracies surrounding gun violence. In a now-deleted YouTube video, Jones claimed that the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was a "false flag operation" carried out by the "deep state" to push for gun control. Furthermore, he claimed that the Parkland students were "crisis actors." Again, this is a claim that nobody should take any heed in. Unfortunately, this sparked violent threats against the survivors of the shooting who have been vocally supporting tougher gun restrictions.
I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment. Despite that, I do not find that believing freedom of speech contradicts finding Jones' accusation justified. Jones markets himself and his website as a news source. Had he been some YouTube blogger filming in his mother's basement and racking up thousands of subscribers, defamation would be debatable. However, Jones gets on the radio and presents himself as the "#1 Internet News Show in the World." If he wants to advertise his website and himself as such, he must have some sort of responsibility to provide credible information at least. Freedom of speech entails the freedom to voice one's opinion without censorship or government restriction. It does not warrant freedom from consequences, nor does it warrant freedom to say anything. Jones is not presenting his content as an opinion; he presents it as facts. He implements an unhealthy level of skepticism into his viewers, instilling fear of a sinister world taking advantage of an uneducated and misguided public.
Of course, having falsities in the news is somewhat inevitable, especially in light of how instantaneous the transfer of information has gotten. But what separates such falsities from fake news, such as that coming from Infowars, is that these falsities are usually quickly corrected due to a responsibility to provide factual information. Jones is not held accountable for the accuracy or credibility of his information, yet he is currently free to present his theories as factual content. Whether Jones truly believes in his theories or not is irrelevant; he is able to present them when there is irrefutable evidence against them and yet avoid liability for whatever his misinformation may have brought on.
Biased news is not inherently an impediment to freedom of speech either. Sure, it is detrimental to our polarizing political climate that we have content that appears to demonize the source's respective political leaning, but having some sort of political leaning in and of itself is not against the First Amendment. Yes, Jones definitely appeals to the far-right audience, but the fact that he garners support from the far-right does not make Infowars a fake news site that deserves to be held accountable for the damage of misinformation. If we had a commentator who accused countries with single-payer healthcare of feigning deaths to perpetrate conservatives' disapproval of single-payer healthcare, the same standard would apply to them. Infowars' content is not only partisan; it is factually wrong and deserving of the lawsuits it has already received and more.
Whether he will be found guilty is an entirely different question. More than likely, he will be found innocent by claiming that he was providing an alternative perspective that contrasts with that of traditional news sources. Regardless, the lawsuits and the publicity that Infowars garnered shows that freedom of speech has limits.