Disinformation and Defamation: Alex Jones and the Sandy Hook Massacre

Introduction

On the morning of December 14, 2012, 20 year-old Adam Lanza used a .22-calibre rifle to shoot and kill his mother while she was sleeping. He then drove his mother’s car five miles to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Lanza entered two first-grade classrooms and used a semiautomatic Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle to murder twenty children ages six and seven years old, and six women who worked at the school. Lanza then killed himself with one of two handguns he brought with him. The Newtown massacre became one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.

The Sandy Hook massacre, along with a string of other mass shootings, brought further attention to the national debate over government regulation of firearms. Congress, under the Obama administration, failed to renew the lapsed legislation that it passed in 1994 to ban semiautomatic assault rifles and large-capacity magazines, and also failed to pass background-check legislation.

The Seeds of Disinformation

Meanwhile, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones used his media platforms, Infowars and PrisonPlanet.com, to spread falsehood over a four-year period to his 2.7 million monthly viewers and 2.3 million YouTube subscribers. After the massacre, court records show, his platform generated $10 million annually, leading Infowars to be valued at $68 million. 

Jones’s followers, motivated by his repeated claims for viewers to “take action,” harassed and threatened the families of the victims. One such follower, Wolfgang Halbig, hounded and threatened the parents of the victims. Together, these false claims and acts of harassment were submitted as the evidence of harm needed to claim defamation. As a result of these false claims and the harm the grieving families experienced, Alex Jones and Infowars have been the subject of multiple defamation lawsuits.

Four primary First Amendment questions arise from these lawsuits:
1. Are the parents to be legally considered "public or private figures"?
2. What is required for the parents to prove an "intentional or reckless falsehood"?
3. Could Jones prevail when using the First Amendment "opinion" defense?
4. Could Jones successfully use the First Amendment defense of "rhetorical hyperbole"?

Glossary

  • Defamation is the use of false and malicious expression to injure a person’s character or reputation. This includes in either in written (libel) or verbal (slander) expressions. See New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964); Gertz v. Robert Welch, 418 U.S. 323 (1974).
  • Disinformation is an expressed misrepresentation of facts. Similar to propaganda, misinformation can be targeted toward a particular audience with the intent to influence their thinking on a particular issue.
  • Libel is a written defamation of a person’s reputation or character as a result of a published false statement.
  • Slander is a verbal form of defamation when speaking malicious and false words regarding another’s character or reputation.
  • Rhetorical Hyperbole is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. See Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969); Letter Carriers v. Austin, 418 U.S. 264 (1974); and Clifford v. Trump 339 F. Supp. 3d 915 (2018).
Your Progress
Introduction to the Massacre