Lawyers for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones appeared in court this week for a hearing on the first of three defamation suits — two in the same Texas courthouse — that could threaten the very existence of his InfoWars media empire.
The sheer number of suits — many from families of victims killed in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. — has prompted many to wonder if the Austin, Texas-based broadcaster could get Gawkered out of existence.
Two years ago, Gawker Media filed for bankruptcy and shut down its main website after Hulk Hogan won a $140 million invasion of privacy lawsuit against the online outlet in a case secretly funded by billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel — which some see as a model for motivated, well-funded individuals to shut down a nettlesome media outlet.
“I think Peter Thiel refined a playbook that can be used by people across the political spectrum,” Ryan Holiday, a New York Observer contributing editor who wrote extensively about the Gawker case, told TheWrap.
Brennan Gilmore, a former U.S. foreign service officer who posted video from the deadly alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., said that he filed his own defamation suit against Jones in part to try to break InfoWars’ way of doing business.
“I’m asking a court to hold them responsible for the personal and professional damage their lies have caused me, and, more importantly, to deter them from repeating this dangerous pattern of defamation and intimidation,” he said in a statement in March. (Jones has denied the accusations.)
Jones, who has recently seen YouTube clamp down on his videos and Facebook suspend his personal account, told TheWrap that he’s convinced the suits are politically motivated. “My critics admit they’re trying to silence me,” Jones told TheWrap.
He also accused media organizations of deliberately downplaying his numerous apologies to the families of Sandy Hook victims after he repeatedly questioned if the massacre was a hoax, staged by actors in at attempt to challenge gun rights.
“I said I was sorry to families long before these lawsuits ever got filed. Megyn Kelly edited out when I said I was sorry to these families,” said Jones referring to his 2017 interview with the NBC host. He added that his lawyers would play recordings of his apologizes to bolster his motion to dismiss.
Bill Bloss, an attorney at Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder representing a number of Connecticut plaintiffs suing Jones, flatly denied there was a deep-pocketed funder of the suits a la Thiel v. Gawker. “I categorically without exception without limitation can deny that there is third-party funding,” he told TheWrap.
Farrar & Ball, whose lawyers are representing plaintiffs in two other suits, did not respond to repeated inquiries about from TheWrap. An attorney for Gilmore also did not respond to an inquiry.
Regardless, legal experts say that the plaintiffs face a steeper legal challenge winning a defamation case than Hogan did with his invasion of privacy suit. Gawker had published portions of a sex tape of the professional wrestler and the wife of his then best friend, but a jury rejected Gawker’s argument of the tape’s newsworthiness and awarded Hogan $115 million in compensatory damages and an additional $25 million in punitive damages.
A successful defamation suit, though, would require the Sandy Hook plaintiffs to clear a much higher bar than Hogan and prove that Jones made false claims about them and that those assertions resulted in provable harm.
“In most states, in order to win defamation, they would have to prove that he purposely told factual lies, as opposed to offering an opinion — and that’s going to be key here,” Barry Covert, a prominent First Amendment lawyer, told TheWrap. “That he factually lied about them and that he they caused them harm. In most states it’s not sufficient that he offered an incorrect opinion that was offensive.”
The bar gets even higher if the plaintiffs are treated as public figures, as Jones’ attorney’s are insisting they should given that many Sandy Hook parents have become vocal advocates on issues of gun violence. Public figures looking to win a defamation suit would need to prove Jones acted with “actual malice” or that he knowingly told falsehoods which caused harm.
“Many of the parents are public figures,” said Covert, adding that he believed Jones would ultimately prevail. “Many of the parents have been engaging in debates about gun laws. Many of the parents many not be able to claim the mantle of a nonpublic figure.”
But other legal experts were not so certain of the outcome. Charles Harder, who helped lead Hogan’s legal team in his fight with Gawker, told TheWrap that the plaintiffs have a shot at winning.
“If Mr. Jones falsely stated that the parents of Sandy Hook victims were liars and frauds who helped in a cover-up, then I believe the parents would have a valid cause of action for defamation,” he said. “It is unfathomable to me that someone would make such horrific charges, knowing what the parents have already had to go through in their lives with the loss of their young children in a school massacre.”
“I would think a jury would take all of this into account in assessing the case and awarding damages,” he noted, with an echo to his past work.
While Gawker had a mostly solid journalistic reputation, Jones’ InfoWars regularly posts fake news and conspiracy theories without factual foundation. In addition to doubting the Sandy Hook massacre, Jones played a major role in promoting the false Pizzagate scandal and has speculated about child slave colonies on Mars.
Former Gawker staffers vehemently rejected any comparison between the two websites, saying that Jones’ content put him in a league of his own and that — unlike Gawker — shutting down InfoWars would be appropriate.
“He deserves to be put out of business. No journalistic outlet would do what he’s done. Gawker has never made s— up maliciously and published it. Ever,” Gawker’s founding editor, Elizabeth Spiers, told TheWrap via direct message. “The families want damages and an injunction re him publishing sandy hook truther bulls—. I doubt they give a s— about the rest of his biz.”
Adam Weinstein, a former Gawker national security writer now working as a senior editor at Task & Purpose, was even blunter. “Alex Jones makes bank selling s—ty supplements to goons who, at his goading, terrorize shooting survivors,” he told TheWrap. “There’s no comparison. Alex Jones deserves a lot worse than bankruptcy.”
Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.