Alex Jones Defamation Trial Explained: Everything You Need to Know

“It took me about a year, with Sandy Hook, to come to the grips that the whole thing was fake.” That’s what radio host and accused conspiracy-theory peddler Alex Jones said on his InfoWars show in 2014. Now, eight years later, Jones is standing trial in a defamation case in which two parents of children who died in the 2012 school massacre are seeking $150 million in compensation.

Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis are seeking compensation not just for emotional damage caused by claims the massacre was a “false flag” attack designed to encourage stricter gun control laws, but also for death threats given by people who believe in the conspiracy theory espoused by Jones.

At the center of the defamation trial are comments made by Heslin in 2017 during a televised interview with Megan Kelly. Recollecting the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, Heslin said:  “I held my son with a bullet hole through his head.” Shortly after the interview aired, an InfoWars presenter, Owen Shroyer, disputed Heslin’s claim, arguing the timeline of events made it “not possible” for him to have cradled his child. 

The Texas trial, which began on July 25, is the first of three against Jones over his claims about Sandy Hook. Jones has been found guilty of defamation in each case, with the trials now deciding how much he’ll pay in damages. Here’s everything you need to know about the ongoing trial. 

Who is Alex Jones, and what was Sandy Hook?

Alex Jones is a media personality most famous for his radio and YouTube show InfoWars. Jones, 48, is a conservative and avid conspiracy theorist. Jones has advocated conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, the idea that a Washington D.C. pizzeria was involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring patronized 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 Jan. 5 and 6 that precipitated the siege of the capital.

A recurring theme of Jones’ 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, which saw one person die as 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. It saw 20-year-old Adam Lanza shoot and kill 27 people. Lanza first shot and killed his mother at home, then moved to the school where he massacred 20 children and six adult staff members before committing suicide. 

Despite the outlandish conspiracies Jones traffics in, he’s enjoyed large and influential audiences. The YouTube channel for InfoWars had 2 million subscribers before it was kicked off the platform in 2018. (Jones declared InfoWars bankrupt on Saturday.) Former President Donald Trump appeared on his show in 2015 when he was a presidential candidate.

InfoWars generated over $165 million in revenue over a three-year period, InfoWars producer Daria Karpova said in court on July 29. Much of that money was through products sold on its website, including health supplements and survival gear.

What did Alex Jones say about Sandy Hook?

Of all the conspiracy theories espoused by Jones, the claim that Sandy Hook was a “hoax” is the most infamous. Jones at one point argued the massacre was a false flag operation on the part of the Obama administration, designed to precipitate stricter gun laws.

“My gut is, with the timing and everything that happened, this is staged,” Jones said on the day of the massacre. He compared the shooting to Adolf Hitler’s 1933 scheme to gain complete power by burning Germany’s parliament and declaring martial law. “Why did Hitler blow up the Reichstag? To get control,” he said on the show, “why do governments stage these things? To get our guns!” 

Jones began questioning the legitimacy of parents whose children were killed in the massacre. Before speaking to media about his daughter’s death the day after the shooting, aggrieved parent Robbie Parker was seen holding a folded sheet of paper. Jones claimed the paper was proof of a conspiracy: “It appears that members of the media or government have given him a card and are telling him what to say as they steer reaction to this event,” Jones wrote on InfoWars

Jones later claimed on InfoWars that several of the parents were happily laughing before giving interviews with media where they promptly burst into tears.

“The whole thing was a giant hoax,” Jones said in 2014. “It took me about a year, with Sandy Hook, to come to grips that the whole thing was fake.” 

Crucial for 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 through his head,” Heslin said of his six-year-old, who died in the shooting. InfoWars presenter Owen Shroyer implied Heslin had fabricated some or all of the story on a June 26, 2017 episode of InfoWars.

“Fact-checkers on this have said [it] cannot be accurate,” Shroyer said, according to 2018 court documents. “He’s claiming that he held his son and saw the bullet hole in his head. That is his claim. Now, according to a timeline of events and a coroner’s testimony, that is not possible.”

Testifying in court on July 28 and 29, Shroyer admitted to not properly fact checking the report that informed his comments about Heslin’s claims. 

Why did parents get death threats?

Several parents of children killed at the Sandy Hook massacre have reported receiving abuse and death threats from people who believe they’re actors in a staged event. “Alex lit the flame that started the fire,” said Heslin in court on Tuesday. “Other people brought some wood to add to it.”

One such perpetrator was a 57-year-old woman who in 2017 was jailed for sending a voicemail to a mourning parent saying “you gonna die, death is coming to you real soon.” Another man was jailed for approaching the sister of Victoria Soto, a teacher who was killed in the massacre, and “angrily charging” that Sandy Hook didn’t take place, and that Soto “never existed.”

In a testimony on Tuesday, Heslin said he suffered abuse online and on the street, and that his home and car had been shot at. “My life has been threatened,” he told the jury. “I fear for my life, I fear for my safety.” 

Lenny Pozner, another father of a Sandy Hook victim, told Now This News in 2018 that his family had relocated 7 times in the previous 6 years due to security concerns. “Alex Jones is like the [WWE] of news,” said Pozner, who also won a defamation suit against Jones last year. “Some people enjoy it, they can suspend their disbelief and enjoy what they’re hearing. Some people look at it and they think it’s real.”  

Jones has defended himself by saying he never actively incited violence. “I never said go to people’s houses,” Jones said on the Joe Rogan Experience in 2019.

What’s at stake with the defamation trial?

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have struggled to deal with misinformation, finding it difficult to strike a balance between preserving free speech and curbing harmful misinformation. Alex Jones has himself played a crucial role in this balancing act, being among the first high-profile accounts to get kicked off big platforms in 2018

Alex Jones’ ongoing legal battles will determine whether US courts are an effective recourse for victims of harmful misinformation. “Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,” Heslin and Lewis’ lawyer, Mark Bankston, said in his opening statement to the jury. 

For his part, Jones is attempted to recast the trial as a debate over free speech. When he arrived to court on July 26, he came with tape tied around his mouth with the phrase “save the 1st” written across it, in reference to the first amendment. “If questioning public events and free speech is banned because it might hurt somebody’s feelings, we are not in America anymore,” Jones said in a deposition last month. 

Jones has continued to broadcast episodes of InfoWars, where he’s decried the case as a “show trial” and a “distraction.”

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