On Wednesday, two extraordinary things happened. First, a Connecticut jury awarded almost $1 billion to the families of eight Sandy Hook victims, imposing a massive legal liability on Alex Jones, a far-right media personality who had claimed that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax and that Sandy Hook families were “actors” who were “lying” and “manipulating” the public.
Second, many of the right’s most popular voices were outraged, but not at Jones. They viewed the verdict not just as a direct attack on free speech but as evidence of the power of what they called the “Regime”—the amorphous, elite American establishment—to cancel and persecute the American right.
Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, tweeted to his 1.7 million followers, “This isn't about calculating real damages from Alex Jones. This is about sending a message: If you upset the Regime, they will destroy you, completely and utterly, forever.”
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted to her 1.1 million followers, “No matter what you think of Alex Jones all he did was speak words. He was not the one who pulled the trigger. Were his words wrong and did he apologize? Yes. That’s what freedom of speech is. Freedom to speak words. Political persecution must end.”
Why? To understand the reflexive defense of Alex Jones, one has to understand the ethos of the new right. It is both aggressively punitive and perpetually aggrieved. It lives to smash its enemies in the mouth and “burn down” the American establishment. At the same time, the new right claims that it’s the real victim—as if its lies and conspiracies shouldn’t carry consequences.
But there’s more to the outrage than mere performance. The Jones verdict is a direct threat to the new right’s fabrication-industrial complex. The Connecticut trial represented one of a series of high-profile legal assaults on right-wing fabrications.
Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic have multiple defamation suits against Fox News, OANN, Newsmax, MyPillow’s Mike Lindell, lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, and news anchors Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo. Two Georgia election workers, Ruby Freeman and Wandrea Moss, have sued a popular far-right website called Gateway Pundit for a series of false claims that they committed voter fraud in Fulton County Georgia.
The Jones verdict also follows on the heels of Fox News’s decision to pay “millions of dollars” after the network broadcast false claims that the murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had a role in hacking and leaking DNC emails during the 2016 campaign.
These cases all share characteristics with the Jones case. Far-right figures aggressively pushed blatant, easily disproved falsehoods and inflicted a catastrophic degree of misery on their targets. Consider these claims, from Freeman and Moss’s lawsuit:
At the height of Defendants’ campaign of disinformation, Ms. Freeman, at the recommendation of the FBI, fled her home and did not return for two months. On January 6, 2021, a crowd on foot and in vehicles surrounded Ms. Freeman’s house. Ms. Freeman was forced to shutter her online business when social media became impossible to navigate. Ms. Moss has suffered personal and professional consequences in her ongoing work on Fulton County elections. On at least two occasions, strangers showed up at her grandmother’s home and attempted to push into the house in order to make a “citizens’ arrest.”
I am a longtime First Amendment attorney. I’ve filed lawsuits defending the First Amendment in federal courts from coast to coast. I filed an amicus brief defending the First Amendment in a Supreme Court case this term. I know that defamation claims are subject to abuse, and that plaintiffs should have to clear a high evidentiary hurdle before they’re able to hold another person liable for their words.
The plaintiffs in the Jones cases almost certainly would have been able to clear that hurdle, but they didn’t have to. The trial court had issued a default judgment against Jones after he repeatedly refused to comply with court orders to turn over documents crucial to the plaintiffs’ case. The trial was thus over damages only, and the jury was charged only with deciding the amount of the families’ loss.
Defamation doctrine has always existed side by side with American free-speech jurisprudence. Applied properly, it can and does play a vital role in our American system of ordered liberty. Defamation has never been considered part of “the freedom of speech” that our Constitution secures. Protection against targeted, harmful falsehoods has long been a bedrock principle in common law.
Sadly, however, there is a market for misinformation. In a polarized nation, angry voters are willing to believe almost anything about their political opponents. They’re hungry for “news” that reinforces their convictions that their political enemies aren’t just wrong; they’re evil. The fabrication-industrial complex is lucrative.
When the market fails, law and justice can prevail. Defamation litigation can’t reform a grifter’s heart, but it can compensate a grifter’s victims, and successful cases tell the right-wing public that they cannot trust the media outlets that led them astray.
So, in a sense, Charlie Kirk is right. The Jones jury did send a message, but the message wasn’t about destroying dissidents; it was about seeking justice. Even though the final damages won’t be known until they’ve been reviewed by the courts and the case concludes, the message is still clear—grave harms require a serious response.
It remains to be seen whether the right-wing audience will absorb this truth. In fact, the hysterical response to the Jones verdict suggests that many of the right’s leading voices are trying to discredit the legal system in the eyes of their fans. When even the ordinary Americans who served on the Jones jury are decried as part of the “Regime,” you know that far-right paranoia is reaching a new peak.
But the legal cases will proceed. Future juries will convene. And when they do, all the angry, desperate tweets in the world won’t save the right from the consequences of its malicious lies.