More Sandy Hook Families Sue Alex Jones

Alex Jones is finally being called on to answer for his irresponsible lying about events like the Sandy Hook shooting.

The families of six students killed in the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with a first responder who was among the earliest responders to the reports of a shooting at the school, have filed a defamation lawsuit against Alex Jones, who has spent the last five and a half years pushing conspiracy theories about the event including the claim that the shooting never actually happened:

WASHINGTON — After the body of Jesse Lewis, age 6, was recovered from his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School, his father, Neil Heslin, cradled him for a final time. At the top of Jesse’s forehead was the gunshot wound that ended his life. “It meant a lot to be able to see him,” Mr. Heslin said in an interview. “When he was born, I was the first to see him, and I was the last one to hold him.”

Alex Jones, an online conspiracy theorist whose InfoWars website is viewed by millions, seized on this agonizing recollection to repeat the bizarre falsehood that the 2012 shooting that killed 20 first graders and six adults at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., was an elaborate hoax invented by government-backed “gun grabbers.”

On his radio show, Mr. Jones said Mr. Heslin needed to clarify “because the coroner said no, the parents weren’t allowed to have touched the kids or have seen the kids.” He played a video in which the InfoWars “reporter” Owen Shroyer says of Mr. Heslin, “He’s claiming that he held his son and saw the bullet hole in his head.”

“That is not possible,” Mr. Shroyer said.

More than five years after one of the most horrific mass shootings in modern history, the families of Sandy Hook victims are still enduring daily threats and online abuse from people who believe bogus theories spread by Mr. Jones, whom President Trump has praised for his “amazing” reputation.

Now, for the first time, the families are confronting Mr. Jones in court.

“When anybody’s behind a machine, whether it’s a gun or a computer or a car, a dehumanization takes place that makes it easier to commit an act of violence,” Veronique De La Rosa, the mother of Noah Pozner, another victim, said in an interview. She is suing Mr. Jones, she said, because she wants to force him to admit to his devotees that “he peddled a falsehood, that Sandy Hook is real and that Noah was a real, living, breathing little boy who deserved to live out the rest of his life.”

In three separate lawsuits — the most recent was filed on Wednesday in Superior Court in Bridgeport, Conn. — the families of eight Sandy Hook victims as well as an F.B.I. agent who responded to the shooting seek damages for defamation. The families allege in one suit, filed by Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport, that Mr. Jones and his colleagues “persistently perpetuated a monstrous, unspeakable lie: that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged, and that the families who lost loved ones that day are actors who faked their relatives’ deaths.”

More broadly, the families are seeking society’s verdict on “post truth” culture in which widely disseminated lies damage lives and destroy reputations, yet those who spread them are seldom held accountable. The suit filed on Wednesday emphasizes Mr. Jones’s reach and connection to Mr. Trump. On his show last year, Mr. Jones called himself and his listeners “the operating system of Trump.” Later he said, “I’m making it safe for everybody else to speak out just like Trump’s doing, on a much bigger scale.”

When the president called the news media the “enemy of the people” last year, Mr. Jones proudly tweeted that he used the phrase first, in 2015.

Mr. Trump has also echoed InfoWars’ false claims that Hillary Clinton benefited from the votes of millions of illegal immigrants in the election, and repeated InfoWars’ bogus charge that the news media covers up terrorist attacks.

More from The Hartford Courant:

An active FBI agent who responded to Sandy Hook Elementary School during the December 2012 shooting is joining a group of families of victims in suing controversial talk show host Alex Jones for claiming the mass shooting was a hoax.

The defamation lawsuit filed in Connecticut Wednesday mirrors one filed by the familes of two other Sandy Hook victims in Texas in April.

The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit are the parents of four children killed at the Newtown school — Jacqueline and Mark Barden, parents of Daniel; Nicole and Ian Hockley, parents of Dylan; Francine and David Wheeler, parents of Ben; and Jennifer Hensel and Jeremy Richman, parents of Avielle — as well as the relatives of first-grade teacher Victoria Leigh Soto, and Erica Lafferty-Garbatini, the daughter of Principal Dawn Hochsprung.

William Aldenberg, a longtime FBI agent and first responder to the scene, is also a plaintiff.

The lawsuit alleges a yearslong campaign of “abusive and outrageous false statements in which Jones and the other defendants have developed, amplified and perpetuated claims that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged and that the 26 families who lost loved ones that day are paid actors who faked their relatives’ deaths,” the suit said.

“While the nation recoiled at the terrible reality of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Alex Jones saw an opportunity,” said attorney Josh Koskoff, who is representing the families.

“He went on a sustained attack that has lasted for years, accusing shattered family members of being actors, stating as fact that the shooting itself was a hoax and inciting others to act on these malicious lies,” Koskoff said in a press release. “He knew his claims were false but he made them anyway to further a simple but pathetic goal: to make money by tearing away at the families’ pain. This lawsuit seeks to hold Alex Jones and his financial network accountable for those disgraceful actions.”

(…)

Jones had said on his radio show the day the April lawsuit was filed that the Sandy Hook victims are being manipulated by Democrats and those who want to destroy the Second Amendment.

“I ask the families of Sandy Hook victims to actually admit that I have invited you on for years and admit that I have said for years that it really happened, and if I have caused you any pain by debating both sides of it I am sorry for your pain, but this is a big public event that has been seized on politically to take our rights,” Jones said.

This lawsuit, which was filed in Bridgeport, Connecticut, joins two other lawsuits that were filed against Jones in Travis County, Texas where Jones resides, alleges in its essential parts that Jones defamed the parents and the first responder by alleging that they had lied about the aftermath of the shooting and ascribing to them participation in the numerous conspiracy theories he has woven over the past six years on his show and in various other appearances in an effort to spread the false claim that the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut never happened, that it was in fact a “false flag” operation to advance arguments for gun control, and that if it did happen it did not happen in the manner that has been reported in the general media. Additionally, Jones has claimed that the parents and many of the first responders were in fact “crisis actors” who can be shown to have been at the scene of other shooting events.

Generally speaking, a Plaintiff seeking to win a defamation lawsuit must show that a statement or statements made about them that have been published, which includes a broadcast over the Internet, television, or radio, that this statement is false, that the Plaintiffs suffered some sort of damage due to the false statement, and that the statement is not covered by an applicable privilege. In this case, the Plaintiffs appear t0 have alleged sufficient facts to meet this standard. There appears to be no question that the statements that Jones made regarding these Plaintiffs were made, that they are demonstrably false and that the parents have been injured by these false statements. It also does not appear that the statements would be covered by any applicable privilege.

Leaving aside the minimal pleading standards, though, winning the case will take something more than just the facts alleged in the Complaint. In this case, the families will need to show that Jones was, at the very least, negligent in making the claims that he did and failed to take the steps that an ordinary reporter would take to ensure that what they are reporting is accurate. In addition to this, the Plaintiffs’ legal burden could become more difficult depending on whether or not they are considered “public figures.” This question is relevant due to the Supreme Court’s ruling in   New York Times v. Sullivanwhere it ruled that a party that the First Amendment requires that individuals who are considered “public figures” must allege and establish that the defamatory statement was made with what the Court called “actual malice.” In the relevant section of its opinion in that 1964 case, the Court put it this way:

A rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions — and to do so on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited in amount — leads to a comparable “self-censorship.” Allowance of the defense of truth, with the burden of proving it on the defendant, does not mean that only false speech will be deterred. Even courts accepting this defense as an adequate safeguard have recognized the difficulties of adducing legal proofs that the alleged libel was true in all its factual particulars. See, e.g., Post Publishing Co. v. Hallam, 59 F. 530, 540 (C.A. 6th Cir. 1893); see also Noel, Defamation of Public Officers and Candidates, 49 Col.L.Rev. 875, 892 (1949). Under such a rule, would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism, even though it is believed to be true and even though it is, in fact, true, because of doubt whether it can be proved in court or fear of the expense of having to do so. They tend to make only statements which “steer far wider of the unlawful zone.” Speiser v. Randall, supra, 357 U.S. at 526. The rule thus dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate. It is inconsistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with “actual malice” — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

The question of whether or not a person is a “public figure” has been the subject of much litigation in the years since Sullivan was decided, and it can often be difficult to determine when a particular individual qualifies for this distinction. One could make the case, for example, that the fact that these parents have made themselves available for press interviews in the years since the shooting means that they, at the least, qualify as “limited purpose public figures” in that they have “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” In this case, that particular controversy would be the issue of gun control and how we ought to respond to events like Sandy Hook or the Sandy Hook Shooting. On the other hand, one could argue that these parents are merely speaking as parents whose children were shot by a madman and that they haven’t voluntarily “thrust themselves” into a public debate merely by speaking to the press. However one resolves that issue seems immaterial to me, though. Even if these parents are considered “public figures” for purposes of these claims, it seems clear that there is sufficient evidence for the “actual malice” that the Sullivan standard requires. At the very least, it seems clear that Jones made or published via his website the defamatory statements in question with “reckless disregard” of whether or not they were true or false. Therefore, Jones would still be liable even if he were successful in arguing that the Plaintiffs are “public figures.”

There are not the only lawsuits Jones is facing as a result of the conspiracy theories that he has spread over the years, and the false claims he’s made with regard to mass shooting events in particular. In March, a Massachusetts man who Jones had falsely identified as the shooter in the February 14th shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida filed a suit against Jones. Additionally, Jones is also facing a defamation lawsuit from the man who recorded the deadly car attack at last year’s racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In several broadcasts of his show, Jones had referred to the man as a “deep state shill” and a “CIA asset” who helped organize the attack. As with the attacks on the parents of the Sandy Hook victims, these assertions are untrue and seemingly made without any regard for whether they were true or false.

As I said last month with the first round of Sandy Hook lawsuits, it looks like the chickens are coming home to roost for Alex Jones.

Here’s the complaint:

Lafferty Et Al v. Jones Et Al by Doug Mataconis on Scribd

FILED UNDER: Guns and Gun Control, Law and the Courts, Media, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    One important to thing to remember is that there’s an anti-bootstrapping provision if defamation law: the “public figure” defense can’t be used if the potentially defamatory statements are what caused the plaintiff to become notorious.

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  2. @Stormy Dragon:

    Yes I’m aware of that, but one could argue that many of the parents have made themselves “public figures” or at least “quasi-public figures” due to their own public advocacy on the issue of gun control.

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  3. CSK says:

    Jones was also the first to spread the “theory” that the Boston Marathon bombings were a false flag operation staged by the FBI, as were the San Bernardino shootings. He claims that 90% of his followers are Trump fans.

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  4. @CSK:

    He claims that 90% of his followers are Trump fans.

    Seems low.

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  5. becca says:

    Alex Jones.

    How can someone so evil flourish?

    I know, I know, but still…

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  6. michael reynolds says:

    I hope they bankrupt this POS. He should die penniless begging for spare change. He’s a cruel man and I really don’t like cruel people.

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  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So having one’s child shot and killed means one can never say anything about that fact to a news organization with out giving up some of their rights? I hope you are right Doug when you say, “However one resolves that issue seems immaterial to me,”

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  8. James Pearce says:

    @michael reynolds:

    He should die penniless begging for spare change.

    I propose leaving him with enough of a per diem so that he can continue to procure roids.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    So, I’ve got an unpopular take here: Alex Jones is a raving asshole and deserves to be scorned and ostracized from polite society. But this isn’t defamation, in that no reasonable person would believe that Sandy Hook or the Boston Marathon bombing were faked events. He’s a fantasist and a conspiracy monger, selling a nutty agenda. In doing so, he’s causing additional anguish to grieving parents, which makes him a monster. But he’s not actually tarnishing their reputations. Neither the general public nor their neighbors and colleagues think they’re faking their kids’ deaths; indeed, they’re objects of widespread warmth and sympathy.

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  10. teve tory says:

    Defamation may be a law unsuited for the internet era. Maybe we need to codify a new crime.

    I would call it Angry Tard Unleashment.

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  11. CSK says:

    I wonder if Jones will use the same defense he used in the custody battle with his ex-wife over their son: “Hey, it’s just an act! I’m not really a raving paranoid conspiracy theorist; I just play one on the Internet!”

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  12. Blue Galangal says:

    @James Joyner: So the death threats to the Sandy Hook parents, is that one example of the warmth and sympathy that they’re receiving?

    Tarnishing their reputations in this instance is leading directly to threats of violence and death, and could, in fact, lead to their deaths. That seems to be putting these parents in imminent danger, not just a slight reputation malfunction.

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  13. CSK says:

    @Blue Galangal:

    A woman in Florida was sentenced to prison for making death threats against Leonard Pozner, the father of one of the victims, because she had read/heard on conspiracy websites that Sandy Hook was a false flag operation and that Pozner was a crisis actor.

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  14. James Joyner says:

    @Blue Galangal: @CSK: This strikes me more as evidence of incitement than defamation. I’m not sure what the civil remedies are for that.

    Jones is a raving lunatic with a following. I just don’t think reasonable people take him seriously.

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  15. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:

    The problem is that unreasonable, irrational people do take Jones and his ilk quite seriously, and they’re the ones who are dangerous.

    Inciting to riot is certainly a felony. Inciting crazy people to threaten the lives of grieving parents apparently isn’t.

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  16. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t think they give a damn about Alex Jones or his commentary. This is not about him being mean. Its about his commentary seeding the minds of disturbed people to make death threats and surveillance people who are trying to figure out how to get through the day without a murdered child.

    Surely you don’t think a man that peddles in conspiracy theories to people that believe in “2nd amendment remedies” to target private figures gets a free pass do you? Of course you do. Republicans in general will always default to the rights of people who make money over people that don’t.

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  17. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @CSK: This is easy–there is a party to this case that makes lots of money…and there are parties to the case that don’t. Guess which one a Republican will almost always side with? Had said parents only had greater net worth….tsk tsk tsk.

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: @Jim Brown 32: I don’t see any way to take my comment as an endorsement of or “siding with” Jones, who I call an “asshole,” “fanaticist,” and “monster.” I just don’t see this as falling into the defamation category as I understand the law. I’m saying this is likely free speech in the way that burning the flag or picketing veteran funerals is. I think people have a right to sue for legitimate damages and it seems that Jones has caused some. I just don’t think reputational harm is that damage.

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  19. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:

    The judge in the Florida case agrees with you, to the extent that he said that people had the right to think and say whatever loathsome things they wished, but that they did not have the right to threaten others with death based on those beliefs.

    Given what the Newtown families have suffered, some of them having to move or even go into hiding, I think you could argue that they have suffered materially as a direct consequence of Jones’s speech. It’s a fine line, but First Amendment law has always regarded one’s reputation as a tangible asset, much like a house or a car, and if your reputation is unjustly tarnished in a way that puts you out of a job, then the tarnisher is liable. It could be argued that having to move or go into hiding to escape from the loons threatening you with death could be regarded as a deprivation of your right to lead your life as you wanted.

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @CSK:

    Given what the Newtown families have suffered, some of them having to move or even go into hiding, I think you could argue that they have suffered materially as a direct consequence of Jones’s speech. It’s a fine line, but First Amendment law has always regarded one’s reputation as a tangible asset, much like a house or a car, and if your reputation is unjustly tarnished in a way that puts you out of a job, then the tarnisher is liable. It could be argued that having to move or go into hiding to escape from the loons threatening you with death could be regarded as a deprivation of your right to lead your life as you wanted.

    I completely agree that, to the extent legally permissible under First Amendment jurisprudence, people ought be able to go after Jones for the harm he has done. I just don’t think it’s reputational harm but rather harassment, incitement, or something else.

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  21. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:

    If they can only sue for reputational harm–even though I think they can demonstrate it–then their case, unfortunately, becomes that much tougher to win. Much as I hate to think it, Jones could walk away from this suit. Marcel Fontaine, the young man from Massachusetts whom Jones accused of being the Parkland shooter, may have a better shot.

    I don’t know what kind of simpleton you have to be to believe Jones’s “theory” that everyone involved in Sandy Hook was a crisis actor: the little kids who died, the teachers, the first responders, the parents, the other children at the school who, thankfully,were not slaughtered, the victims’ siblings, the friends and relatives of the families, their neighbors, the medical examiner and staff, the funeral directors and members of the clergy–all of these people were acting? And no one, not one person, even the little kids, ever spoke up? The whole town, never mind the county and state government, and the press would have had to have been in on it.

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  22. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    no reasonable person would believe that Sandy Hook or the Boston Marathon bombing were faked events.

    25% of the public thinks that they’re being lied to about what happened at Sandy Hook. I think a definition of “reasonable person” that excludes that large a portion of society “causes epistemological problems of sufficient magnitude as to lay upon the logical and semantic resources of the English language a heavier burden than they can reasonably be expected to bear.”

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  23. SenyorDave says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Just like this poll from last week:

    POLL: 59% Believe Mueller Has Uncovered No Crimes (from navigator Research, which has a pretty good rep). This despite 17 criminal indictments and five guilty please. Between ignorance,partisanship and Trump’s “fake news” garbage I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, but I am shocked at the magnitude.

    IMO, Trump and the modern GOP has done long term damage to this country. We now have a significant portion of the population that will refuse to believe facts just because someone they like tells them it is fake news. And it isn’t both sides. There might have been low levels of this on the Democratic side, but nothing even close to what we have now.

    Alex Jones is just a sympton.

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  24. Joe says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think we are all having the same argument with you, but I would ask it as “reputation with who?” Reasonable people think Jones is a nutcase and everything else you called him. But Stormy Dragon‘s 25% think that Jones is a truth teller and those nut jobs think the Sandy Hook families are liars and are willing to respond to those families with threats. He has ruined the reputations of those families with that 25% of the population, including 1% of those 24% who are willing to take offensive or violent action.

    I think the flaw in what your are saying James Joyner, is that defamation only counts when one is defamed by the people you care about (and the you here is the general viewer, not James Joyner in particular.

    I don’t know the particular law on this issue, but I am rooting like hell for the families.

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  25. CSK says:

    I find it depressing to note that The Gateway Pundit, a cyber-excresence similar to Infowars, has been sued numerous times since its inception and is still going strong.

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  26. rachel says:

    …it looks like the chickens are coming home to roost for Alex Jones.

    May they settle comfortably up there on their roost and crap all over his head.

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  27. Sleeping Dog says:

    @michael reynolds:
    He’ll only claim to be a victim.

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