BARTH KECK

In a three-hour deposition in the defamation case against Alex Jones of Infowars, the defendant stated on March 29 that “the public doesn’t believe what they’re told anymore” due to corruption in the government and the “mainstream media.”

Jones added, “I, myself, have almost had like a form of psychosis back in the past where I basically thought everything was staged, even though I’m now learning a lot of times things aren’t staged.”

Jones was referring to the horrific Sandy Hook mass shooting. One year ago, several parents of children who died in that massacre filed defamation suits against Jones alleging he called them “crisis actors” and incited “death threats” against them on his Infowars platform.

In a Hartford Courant op-ed on April 5, Jones’ lawyer, Norm Pattis of New Haven, wrote that “Alex Jones is not psychotic. He plans to defend himself on the same grounds that protect those who take such joy in ridiculing him: the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”

On Infowars just four days prior to his video deposition, Jones addressed the recent suicide of Sandy Hook father Jeremy Richman: “I mean, is there going to be a police investigation? Are they going to look at the surveillance cameras? I mean, what happened to this guy? This whole Sandy Hook thing is, like, really getting even crazier.”

Pardon me for not believing Jones when he claims he is “learning a lot of times things aren’t staged.”

Still, the First Amendment gives Jones the right to spout his opinions, so long as they are not defamatory. According to Pattis, “Jones hasn’t defamed anyone; he has engaged in extreme speech, a form of speech we’ve cherished since the days of the penny press.”

Actually, the right to free speech pre-dates the penny press (circa 1833), as the First Amendment was adopted in 1791. Still, Pattis’ reference to the penny press is particularly relevant because it underscores the sea change in news delivery from the 19th century to today.

In the 21st century, news travels exponentially faster than in the 1800s, which means that misinformation and conspiracy theories — content upon which Alex Jones has built his internet-fueled Infowars — are disseminated at warp speed.

“About two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) get news on social media sites, about the same as the portion that did so in 2017 (67%),” according to a 2018 Pew study. “One-in-five get news there often.”

Moreover, Jones’ fans often accessed Infowars through Facebook and YouTube. As Pew noted, “Facebook is still far and away the site Americans most commonly use for news, with little change since 2017. About four-in-ten Americans (43%) get news on Facebook. The next most commonly used site for news is YouTube, with 21% getting news there.”

That access officially ended last summer when Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter blocked Infowars, but it wasn’t the end of Alex Jones on Facebook and YouTube.

“While Jones no longer has official pages boosting his content on major social-media sites, YouTube and Facebook have so far allowed a series of pages that have cropped up to post Jones’ videos and effectively circumvent the bans,” writes journalist Ali Breland. “One Facebook profile that appears to be impersonating Jones has amassed over 70,000 followers. The profile displays a list of links directing users to various Infowars sites, and often posts livestreams of Jones’ shows.”

I imagine Norm Pattis supports this outcome as a reasonable consequence of free speech. Why else would he double down so hard on anyone who prefers Infowars permanently muzzled?

“Now I defend [Jones] from you — you, who want him silenced — because you scare me more than he does,” writes Pattis. “There is no mob quite so terrifying as a self-righteous mob. Suppressing speech because it offends a majority of folks gives the power to censor speech. We’re close to banning speech simply because it is hateful.”

Pattis sees Jones’ conspiracy theories merely as “offensive” and “hateful” speech that “discomfited the suffering” of Sandy Hook families — an occurrence that Pattis finds “truly unfortunate.”

Yes, how unfortunate for people like Jeremy Richman and his widow.

The Jones defamation case is admittedly a thorny legal issue, considering the plaintiffs must qualify as “limited-purpose public figures” who are “ordinary citizens but may be well known because of a specific issue or within a certain following of people.” Pattis could argue that “the parents are public figures because they speak publicly on issues such as gun violence,” disqualifying them as victims of defamation.

On the other hand, legal scholars have filed an amicus brief that rejects Jones’ claim that “his videos on Infowars reflected nothing more than his beliefs” protected by the First Amendment.

Upholding Jones’ free-speech argument, the scholars wrote, “would allow unscrupulous news organizations to couch their language as ‘opinion’ and to mask their meaning with implication and insinuation.” If that were the case, any news outlet could avoid “all liability for defamatory remarks. This should not be allowed and, in fact, is not allowed.”

While the legal issues remain unsettled, the moral issues are not. In an age when the internet and social media are used to spread conspiracy theories, vitriol, and lies, I find it cowardly for the likes of Alex Jones to use those very platforms to gain fame and fortune. Furthermore, while I fully support the First Amendment and Norm Pattis’ legal obligation to uphold it, I see Mr. Pattis’ cavalier response to Jones’ opponents as unseemly.

“You are afraid of Alex Jones and his outlandish conspiracy theories,” writes Pattis. “You’re more alike than you think … Alex Jones is not psychotic, and neither, I suspect, are you, although some days I’m not so sure about either of you.”

Makes one wonder who’s accused of defaming whom.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.