“With Sandy Hook, it took me about a year to figure out that the whole thing was fake. That’s what radio host and accused conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said on his InfoWars show in 2014. Now, eight years later, Jones is on trial in a defamation case involving two parents of children who died in the 2012 school massacre , are asking for $150 million in damages.
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis are seeking damages not only for emotional harm caused by claims that the massacre was a false flag attack aimed at promoting stricter gun control laws, but also for death threats from people who believe in the conspiracy theory espoused by Jones. .
At the center of the defamation lawsuit are comments Heslin made in 2017 during a television interview with Megan Kelly. Remembering the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, Heslin said, “I was holding my son with a bullet hole over his head.” Shortly after the interview aired, InfoWars host Owen Shroyer disputed Heslin’s claim, claiming that the timeline of events “made it impossible” for him to raise his child.
The Texas trial, which began July 25, is the first of three against Jones over his Sandy Hook claims. Jones was found guilty of defamation in each case, with the courts now deciding how much he will pay in damages. Here’s everything you need to know about the ongoing lawsuit.
Who is Alex Jones and what was Sandy Hook?
Alex Jones is a media personality best known for his InfoWars radio and YouTube show. Jones, 48, is a conservative and an avid conspiracy theorist. Jones has championed conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, the idea that a Washington DC pizzeria was involved in a child sex trafficking ring sponsored by several high-ranking Democrats, and more recently, the discredited theory that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Jones was found to have helped fund the pro-Trump rallies on January 5 and 6 that precipitated the siege of the capital.
A recurring theme in Jones’s theories is the concept of a “false flag” operation—an event staged to precipitate political action. He said the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, in which one person died when white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with local counter-protesters, was a false flag operation “to try to bring down Trump.” He accused Jason Kessler, who organized the alt-right rally, of being a federal agent.
Sandy Hook was a 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 27 people. Lanza first shot his mother at home, then moved to the school where he massacred 20 children and six adult staff members before committing suicide.
Despite the strange conspiracies Jones runs, he has enjoyed a large and influential audience. The YouTube channel for InfoWars had 2 million subscribers before the platform launched in 2018. (.) Former President Donald Trump appeared on his show in 2015 when he was a presidential candidate.
InfoWars generated more than $165 million over a three-year period, InfoWars producer Daria Karpova said in court on July 29. Much of that money was through products sold on his website, including health supplements and survival gear.
What did Alex Jones say about Sandy Hook?
Of all the conspiracy theories Jones has pushed, the claim that Sandy Hook was a “hoax” is the most infamous. At one point, Jones claimed the massacre was a false flag operation by the Obama administration to push for stricter gun laws.
“My gut is, with the timing and everything that happened, it’s staged,” Jones said the day of the massacre. He compared the shooting to Adolf Hitler’s 1933 plan to seize total power by burning down the German parliament and declaring martial law. “Why did Hitler blow up the Reichstag? To gain control,” he said on the show, “why do governments stage these things? To get our weapons!”
Jones began to question the legitimacy of the parents whose children were killed in the massacre. Injured parent Robbie Parker was seen holding a folded sheet of paper before speaking to the media about his daughter’s death a day after the shooting. Jones argued that the papers were evidence of a conspiracy: “It appears that members of the media or the government have given him the card and are telling him what to say as he directs the response to this event,” Jones wrote on InfoWars.
Jones later claimed on InfoWars that several parents laughed happily before giving media interviews where they immediately burst into tears.
“The whole thing was a huge hoax,” Jones said in 2014. “With Sandy Hook, it took me about a year to figure out that the whole thing was fake.”
Crucial to Jones’ defamation case against Heslin and Lewis are statements made on Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly in 2017 and a subsequent episode of InfoWars.
“I lost my son, I buried my son, I held my son with a bullet hole over his head,” Heslin said of his 6-year-old, who died in the shooting. InfoWars host Owen Shroyer suggested that Heslin made up some or all of the story on the June 26, 2017 episode of InfoWars.
“The fact checkers said about it [it] can’t be accurate,” Shroyer said, according to court documents from 2018. “He claims he was holding his son and saw a bullet hole in his head. That’s his claim. Now, based on the timeline of events and the coroner’s testimony, that’s not possible.”
In court testimony on July 28 and 29, Shroyer admitted that he did not properly fact-check the report that contained his comments about Heslin’s claims.
Why did they threaten the parents with death?
Several parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre have reported receiving death and abuse threats from people they believe to be actors in the staged event. “Alex lit the flame that started the fire,” Heslin said in court Tuesday. “Other people brought some wood to add to it.
One such offender was a 57-year-old woman who was jailed in 2017 for sending a voicemail to a grieving parent saying “you’re going to die, death will come really soon”. Another man was jailed for approaching the sister of Victoria Soto, a teacher who was killed in the massacre, and “angryly charging” that Sandy Hook didn’t happen and that Soto “never existed.”
In testimony Tuesday, Heslin said he was harassed online and on the street, and that his house and car were shot up. “My life was in danger,” he told the jury. “I fear for my life, I fear for my safety.
Lenny Pozner, another Sandy Hook victim’s father, told Now This News in 2018 that his family had moved seven times in the past 6 years due to safety concerns. “Alex Jones is like him [WWE] news,” said Pozner, who also won a defamation lawsuit against Jones last year. “Some people enjoy it, they can suspend disbelief and enjoy what they hear. Some people look at it and think it’s real.”
Jones defended himself by saying that he never actively incited violence. “I never said go to people’s houses,” Jones said on the Joe Rogan Experience in 2019.
What is at stake in a defamation lawsuit?
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have struggled with misinformation and found it difficult to strike a balance between preserving free speech and curbing harmful misinformation. Alex Jones himself played a key role in this balancing act and was one of the first high-profile accounts.
Alex Jones’ ongoing legal battles will determine whether US courts are an effective remedy for victims of harmful misinformation. “Speech is free, but you pay for lies,” Heslin and Lewis’ attorney Mark Bankston said in his opening statement to the jury.
Jones is trying to recast the trial as a free speech debate. When he arrived in court on July 26, he arrived with tape tied around his mouth with the phrase “save the 1st” written across it in reference to the First Amendment. “If questioning public actions and free speech is banned because it might hurt someone’s feelings, then we are no longer in America,” Jones said in testimony last month.
Jones went on to broadcast episodes of InfoWars denouncing the case as a “trial” and a “distraction”.