Disinformation and Defamation: Alex Jones and the Sandy Hook Massacre

Public or Private Figures

First Amendment Issue #1

The first issue to address in a defamation case is to determine whether the plaintiffs, in this case, the Sandy Hook families, should legally be considered private persons or public figures.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) and reaffirmed in later cases, plaintiffs typically must prove that a defamatory statement is false. But even a false statement may be a protected expression; plaintiffs must also prove that the false statement was published with fault. The level of fault to be proven depends on whether the plaintiff is a public or a private figure.

The lawyers for the Sandy Hook parents argued in court that they “are private individuals and are neither public officials nor public figures.” The lawyers for Alex Jones argued that the parents are public figures because of their public advocacy on gun regulations.

Public Officials and Public Figures

Public officials and public figures have the toughest burden of proof to meet under the First Amendment. That is because they have voluntarily assumed influential positions in society, and therefore their activities should be the object of continual scrutiny. Critics also need substantial protection from libel suits or they will be chilled from providing rigorous coverage. Also, public officials and public figures can command the attention of the media to counter defamatory statements made about them without resorting to the courts for libel suits.

Given these considerations, public figures are required to prove a high level of fault in order to win—that false, defamatory statements about them were published with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth. An intentional falsehood is essentially a fabrication. Reckless disregard for the truth applies when the speaker had a high degree of awareness of probable falsity, or entertained serious doubts that it was true, and published anyway.

Private Persons

On the other hand, private individuals do not assume positions of influence, and so there is much less of an imperative for the media to cover their activities. As a result, private figures enjoy a greater claim to protection from defamatory falsehoods.

Generally, they must prove that the false statement was published with negligence—that is, with a lack of due care under the circumstances. This negligence standard is much easier for a plaintiff to prove than a standard of intentional falsehood or recklessness.

Discussion Questions

1. Why did the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan, make it much more difficult for public officials and public figures to win libel suits than for private persons?

2. Apply the Sullivan decision to the plaintiffs here. Do you think the Sandy Hook families should be considered by the courts public or private figures? What are the arguments for and against?

3. Compare and contrast the intentional falsehood and negligence standards. What distinctions can be made between “reckless regard for the truth” and “lack of due care”?

The activities in this guide assume that the plaintiffs are public figures. Why? This decision is not intended to affirm or deny Alex Jones’ claims that the families were hired by the federal government to serve as “crisis actors.” Rather, the purpose of this narrow exercise is to assume a public status to help students fully understand the complexities of how each defamation principle layers upon the next. Said another way, as private actors, the families would not need to prove “intentional or reckless intent.” Nonetheless, it is a standard worth exploring next for the sake of helping students becoming legally literate about the First Amendment.

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