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On July 26, 2022, Alex Jones —  founder of the far-right platform Infowars entered a Texas courthouse with the phrase “Save the 1st” taped across his mouth. Flocked by his team of lawyers, he prepared to face a lengthy defamation trial surrounding the lies he had spread for years about the tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

Alex Jones is infamous for his bizarre takes. You’d be pressed to find a traumatic event that has taken place in the United States that does not have a deranged Alex Jones theory to go with it. The September 11 terrorist attacks? An inside job. The Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013? Staged by the FBI. By far the most egregious example, however, is Jones’s belief that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary — one that left 20 first-grade students and six teachers dead — was nothing but a government ploy to overturn the Second Amendment.

While these claims may seem so absurd as to not be worth taking seriously, many loyal followers of Jones thought otherwise. In fact, many had such strong faith in his claims that they began to harass the families of the Sandy Hook Victims through online threats and anonymous phone calls. Some even had their homes and cars shot at.

Jones was sued by countless families who claimed that his lies had inflicted severe emotional and psychological damage on them. His trial began at the end of this past July, with heartbreaking testimonies from parents of the victims. One parent in particular — the  mother of Jesse Lewis, a six-year-old boy who was shot and killed that day — spoke directly to Jones from the witness stand, pleading with him to confess to his lies. “And I don’t understand,” she said. “Jesse was real. I am a real mom… I am not deep state… I know you know that.”

The trial culminated with the judge ordering Jones to pay $49.3 million to the Lewis family, and this is only the beginning. Additionally, a Connecticut jury convened on Sept. 13 to begin hearing arguments against Jones for emotional and psychological harm inflicted upon another group of Sandy Hook families.

However, Jones is only one piece of a much larger problem in the United States. Alone, a conspiracy theory does not have much power. However, if a large enough portion of the United States population is willing to latch onto these absurd claims as their version of the truth, that power starts to grow. In a society where the truth is now more malleable, conspiracy theories have the potential to take total control.

Christopher Crowder, a lecturer for the Sweetland Center for Writing, is teaching a course this semester on the power of conspiracy theories, and emphasized that anyone can be susceptible to misinformation.

“Conspiracies have been a thing going on forever,” he said. “…There hasn’t been a rise in conspiracy theories, but there has been a rise in the ease of gaining information … I think we are all in a sense susceptible to seeing some kind of conspiracy theory online.”

This danger cannot be overstated. The fact that anyone can go on Facebook, TikTok or any other social media platform and say something like, “Sandy Hook was staged by the government,” without any consequences (except in the very limited cases of high profile people like Alex Jones mentioned above) presents a new kind of threat to our society. That message could reach thousands, perhaps millions of people, a sizable amount of whom could act on these lies, as we saw in the Sandy Hook case. Conspiracy theorists do not shy away from using this to their advantage, using the large platform they are afforded to spread lies about topics like the COVID-19 pandemic. They rely on the fact that there is an isolated, informationally adrift population, which has been brewing for years and was exacerbated by the Trump Presidency, who will believe what they say, no matter what.

However, there is something else that conspiracy theorists rely on as fuel for their lies — the First Amendment. Many use freedom of speech as a catch-all defense, excusing their most dangerous takes by claiming that they are protected under the law. It’s simple to hear about Sandy Hook and deem them to be harmful and illegal, as they have been found to be in court. However, there are still those who defend what was said by claiming the law allows them to say whatever they please. During the Texas trial, one of Jones’s lawyers voiced this very thought: “If questioning public events and free speech (are) banned because it might hurt somebody’s feelings, we are not in America anymore.” 

It is fair to say that the backlash the Sandy Hook families experienced from Jones’s lies goes far beyond hurting somebody’s feelings. Still, the very fact that there are people out there who believe that Jones’s theories are just another avenue for the “questioning of public events” demonstrates the massive misunderstanding that conspiracy theorists have created around what the First Amendment actually protects.

Unsurprisingly, freedom of speech is much more complex than conspiracy theorists want their followers to know. In some ways, it does allow people to say whatever they’d like. You are free to wave a Confederate flag around or wear a shirt with an offensive slur on it; however, there is a line separating free speech from illegal speech, and it is one that Alex Jones has crossed over and over again. 

Defamation is not protected by the First Amendment, and is the grounds for the lawsuits Jones is facing from the Sandy Hook families. These suits are not uncommon. High profile celebrities often go after media outlets for lies published about them. In 2014, J.K. Rowling sued Daily Mail after they wrote that she had lied about her experiences as a single mother. With plenty of evidence that the story was fabricated, Rowling won herself a hefty amount in damages.

This case is different from Jones’s defamation trial; however, it does help illuminate one key distinction between free speech and illegal speech. If Daily Mail had said, “J.K. Rowling is a bad writer,” that would have been a perfectly legal opinion. It was the fact that they claimed that she lied when she didn’t — just as Jones did about the Sandy Hook shooting — that landed them in court. Many have no problem making this distinction, but some still believe that media outlets like Daily Mail or Infowars need to be able to question the world around them with little to no restriction, regardless of the damage they may inflict. 

This debate is not new. Controversy around what freedom of speech entails has occupied the minds of Americans since the founding of our nation, but conspiracy theorists like Jones take advantage of this confusion, hiding behind it as a means to continue to spread their lies in order to profit from the chaos that will ensue.

People like Alex Jones are not going anywhere, but, if we hope to lessen their impact, we must first address the confusion around what freedom of speech means. We need to teach more about the First Amendment in schools, about what it protects and crucially what it does not protect. This will be a key blow against the ability of conspiracy theorists to justify the things they say with a false interpretation of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is at the heart of our national ethos, and can be a beautiful tool of expression when exercised correctly. However, we must address the misunderstanding so many have about what free speech means. Only then will conspiracy theorists like Jones be forced to stop hiding behind the First Amendment.

Rebecca Smith is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at rebash@umich.edu.

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