Who will rid us of this troublesome beast?
December 6, 2016 7:54 PM   Subscribe

Why can Alex Jones make outlandish claims that provoke gullible people into illegal acts without breaking any laws himself? Why haven't he and his cohort been sued into oblivion?
posted by Johnny Wallflower to Law & Government (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because lying is not against the law.
posted by tivalasvegas at 8:05 PM on December 6, 2016 [8 favorites]


Because lying is not against the law.

I think the question is maybe: "Where is the line between lying about stuff (legal) and incitement to violence (illegal), and why isn't this pizzagate business on the 'illegal' side of that line now that someone has walked into the pizzeria and fired a weapon? Or, alternately, why is he not facing civil lawsuits?"
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:13 PM on December 6, 2016 [13 favorites]


Correct, and I didn't mean to restrict it to to the most recent incident. Hasn't he ever done anything actionable?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:19 PM on December 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Because intent is terribly difficult to prove.

In this case both in criminal and civil court you'd need to prove that Alex Jones's statements were intended to cause this sort of outcome. In a criminal case you'd need to get everyone on a jury to agree that the behavior of the gunman was Alex Jones's intent. No Federal or District Attorney likely sees this as a potential outcome. Civil cases have a lower bar of just a majority of a jury needs to make this determination but its still a hard case to prove.


I think a lot of legal scholars could make the argument that the law was broken but that different then winning in front of a jury.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:29 PM on December 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't. This case might not be the perfect one to try to take to a jury, because the damages turned out - miraculously - to be minimal; but if he'd murdered someone, I can imagine a suit based on a defamation theory turning out successfully; or maybe something based on conspiracy.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:37 PM on December 6, 2016


Brandenburg v. Ohio

Hess v. Indiana

It's mostly a Hess situation. The Atlantic on Trump campaign speech and legal standards.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:20 PM on December 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


The owner of this restaurant has also spoken about the threats he's received, and incessant calls to the business and comments on review sites. He said in one interview (can't find the link, but it's out there) (I promise that's not fake!) that he expects he'll have to close his business in a week or two if this keeps up.

So even if no bodily harm from violence, is it not possible to prosecute for loss of livelihood? Surely there is footage of Alex Jones out there exposing his intent by imploring someone to "do something."
posted by witchen at 10:20 PM on December 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


When questions like this come up, my default recommendation for people who have an interest in the subject matter but who are not legal professionals is to seek out a copy of the late Anthony Lewis' "Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment", a very accessible and interesting book covering the evolution of libel, slander, and defamation law in the 20th century. It starts from New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a landmark decision in which a pro-segregation official in the south attempted to punish the New York Times for publishing an article critical of him and explains the further evolution of law in this area through a number of succeeding cases.

Basically, though, there are very good reasons why U.S. courts are very reluctant to allow themselves to be used to punish people engaging in publishing of political journalism or commentary, unless very high standards of recklessness or actual malice have been met. Malignant trolls like Alex Jones are part of the price we pay for having a press that (in theory, anyway) can't be easily silenced by the powerful when they are unhappy with the way they are portrayed. This area of law is likely to get quite a workout in the next four years, and our incoming president elect has repeatedly gone on the record to suggest that he thinks the press enjoys too much freedom in this area. So.. Jones may be a festering boil on the buttocks of journalism, but do be careful what you wish for.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:14 AM on December 7, 2016 [32 favorites]


Will never forget in law school when the professor asked me, "Let's say I'm editor of the New York Times. And I want to publish a story saying Dick Cheney is a spy. What if I know it's not true? Can he sue me then?"

"Uh...yes?" I said. I was incorrect and everyone laughed. The First Amendment allows you to make shit up.
posted by johngoren at 3:30 AM on December 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


The trick is, though, of course he can sue you. Dick Cheney and the New York Times both have resources sufficient to conduct a lengthy court battle even if Cheney has no case, and the lawsuit gets thrown out. The Portage County Democrat-Republican doesn't have those resources though, so they're less likely to call out the emperor if they can't afford a lawsuit (even assuming they'll win.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:16 AM on December 7, 2016 [7 favorites]


So even if no bodily harm from violence, is it not possible to prosecute for loss of livelihood?

IANAL, but it seems to me a civil suit based on defamation would not be out of the question. A minority of states still have criminal defamation laws, but DC apparently does not, so criminal prosecution seems unlikely. (Before you go clamoring for criminal defamation laws based on one case, please consider how they might be applied by a political opponent attempting to quash speech you agree with.)

Will never forget in law school when the professor asked me, "Let's say I'm editor of the New York Times. And I want to publish a story saying Dick Cheney is a spy. What if I know it's not true? Can he sue me then?"

"Uh...yes?" I said. I was incorrect and everyone laughed. The First Amendment allows you to make shit up.


You undoubtedly also learned in law school that there is a higher standard for slander/libel/defamation of public figures than there is for private individuals. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. seems possibly relevant.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:29 AM on December 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


Not a legal professional, but I imagine that there are also very different standards for a civil suit compared to a criminal suit. Anyone know what the legal differences on intent would be?
posted by forkisbetter at 4:31 AM on December 7, 2016



Not a legal professional, but I imagine that there are also very different standards for a civil suit compared to a criminal suit. Anyone know what the legal differences on intent would be?


Its not so much that there's a difference so much as a lower bar. In a civil action you just need a majority of the jury to view this as his intended outcome. Note the other bar is recklessness - could a reasonable person understand that his actions could cause this type of result.

The downside of a civil trial (if your goal is to put Alex Jones out of business) is you're usually restricted to a financial penalty tied to the damages his actions have caused which in this case likely maxes out at the value of the Pizza business. I have no idea what kind of ability Jones has to financially absorb that kind of penalty.

In this particular case since Alex didn't create the false news - just perpetrated it there's just nothing but a long shot. This reflects a problem with the OP question this is very much something that would have to be handled on a case by case basis.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:31 AM on December 7, 2016


I think people in this thread are giving short shrift to the potential for a defamation lawsuit by the owners of the pizza business against whomever is out there saying that they run a child slavery ring, etc. The "incitement" stuff (Hess, Brandenburg) is about speech that incites people to commit violence - it's an extremely high bar. And who knows why one nut walked into a business with a gun - it could have been any number of public statements that set him off (or mental illness, etc.). But a defamation per se civil lawsuit against someone who made straight-up false claims about a business operating as a front for a criminal activity is totally viable. In other words, don't focus on "provoking gullible people," focus on how the false statements directly injure the business on their own (lost sales, reputation, etc.). Note, though, that the linked article does not mention Alex Jones making such claims about this business.
posted by Mid at 10:42 AM on December 7, 2016 [9 favorites]


That is to say, a civil defamation lawsuit can sue someone "into oblivion" -- look at Gawker.
posted by Mid at 10:44 AM on December 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


I believe johngren's law professor needs a refresher. True, the 1st Amendment permits 'making things up' -- but not just anything. You can't 'make up' a fire in a crowded theater.

Times v Sullivan, though often invoked as proof that libel is permitted in the US, actually clarified the law significantly. It said a public official's libel claim could succeed if the claimant could prove the newspaper knew the information was wholly and patently false. (Not would succeed, but could, and that was the only condition under which it might.)

The NYT isn't the Onion, and a Trump-like defense of 'sarcasm' wouldn't be very credible. A lead editorial accusing a cabinet official of espionage when the editor knows it to be false (as johngren's post described) fits well within the prohibition against libel.
posted by LonnieK at 1:46 PM on December 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


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