Disinformation and Defamation: Alex Jones and the Sandy Hook Massacre

Rhetorical Hyperbole

First Amendment Issue #4

Another type of an opinion defense involves rhetorical hyperbole. Again, defamation suits involve statements of fact. In some situations, an expression can be so outrageous that no reasonable person would conclude that it constitutes a statement of fact. 

For example, in the U.S. Supreme Court case Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing v. Bresler (1970), a newspaper quoted a person who said that a developer’s negotiating position on a land deal with the city of Greenbelt, MD amounted to “blackmail.” The Court ruled that the statement in context did not actually accuse the developer of the crime of blackmail, but rather “even the most careless reader must have perceived that the word was no more than rhetorical hyperbole, a vigorous epithet used by those who considered [the developer’s] negotiating position extremely unreasonable.” 

In another case U.S. Supreme Court case, Letter Carriers v. Austin (1974), the use of the description “traitor” for workers who crossed the picket line in a strike was “merely rhetorical hyperbole, a lusty and imaginative expression of the contempt felt by union members” and not an accusation involving the crime of treason. Witnesses would understand it as a hyperbolic statement.

In an unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988) that an advertisement parodying a Jerry Falwell, a public figure, as having “engaged in a drunken incestuous rendezvous with his mother in an outhouse,” was not reasonably believable as having been made as a statement of fact. Reasonable people would understand that it was rhetorical hyperbole.

Discussion Questions

1. Why does the First Amendment protect hyperbolic expression? How common is hyperbole in political debate? What is the value of hyperbolic expression in political debate?

2. How would Alex Jones argue that his speech involving the Sandy Hook massacre constitutes rhetorical hyperbole? Does the quality of the statements, the quantity of them, and the fact that he repeated them over a four year period, matter when determining whether something is rhetorical hyperbole?

3. Do you think Alex Jones’ statements constitute rhetorical hyperbole—that is, would reasonable people hearing or reading his statements understand that he was making assertions of purported fact or that he was engaging in obvious exaggeration?

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Complete: 4 of 4 First Amendment Issues