Lies, big lies, and free speech
The Alex Jones case is a reminder that lies have consequences
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Earlier this month, a Texas jury ordered the high-profile conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $49 million to the parents of a child slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, concluding a gripping and instructive defamation lawsuit.
In the wake of what remains America’s worst school shooting, Jones had added the grossest of insults to the most horrific of injuries, claiming that the whole event was a hoax, the 26 dead children fakes, and the parents mere actors. Offering an object lesson in just how high the moral stakes of online disinformation are, Jones had unleashed a torrent of harassment on the grieving parents and turbocharged the rise of “fake news.”
Jones had already been held liable by default in three previous trials for refusing to comply with the court, so the only question had been how high the price tag would be; the victims were asking for $150 million, Jones’s lawyers just $8. The $49 million in compensatory and punitive damages marks a just comeuppance for a man who has made a career peddling life-destroying falsehoods. And yet some Christians, conditioned to reflexively stand up for “freedom of speech” and worry if they will soon be charged with defamation for speaking inconvenient truths, might be tempted to speak up on Jones’s behalf, seeing him as the victim of a witch-hunt. This, however, would be to misunderstand both the moral and legal contours of “free speech.”
The Bible certainly does not take sins like those of Alex Jones lightly, as merely “expressing an opinion.” Rather, it warns over and over against the dangers of reckless speech, admonishing us, “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
If what sets mankind apart from the animals is our ability to speak, the perversion of this faculty to spread falsehood rather than truth marks the grossest dereliction of our duty as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve; when we lie, we mark our new post-Fall lineage of children of the “father of lies” (John 8:44). Nor is it a sufficient defense to claim, as Jones did, that he thought he was telling the truth. Scripture exhorts us to be “slow to speak and quick to listen” (James 1:19) precisely so that we can make sure that when we do speak, we speak reliably.
Still, we might say, “misinformation may be a sin, but it’s not a crime; the Constitution protects freedom of speech, right?” This represents a common misunderstanding of the First Amendment. Perhaps its most authoritative exponent, the early Supreme Court justice Joseph Story, wrote in his Commentaries on the Constitution: “That this amendment was intended to secure to every citizen an absolute right to speak, or write, or print whatever he might please, without any responsibility, public or private … is a supposition too wild to be indulged by any rational man.”
Instead, he explains that it intends only a right to speak or publish “without prior restraint”—that is, America, unlike most European countries, would not have a public censor who could disapprove books or articles in advance. It certainly did not mean that no one could subsequently be held legally liable for spreading patently destructive falsehoods that injured the reputations or endangered the lives of others.
Since Story’s time, for better or for worse, the courts have tended to narrow the scope of slanders and libels that could be prosecuted, but defamation is still liable for civil suit by common law and still a criminal offense in many states. As a legal category, defamation simply recognizes the fact that speech can easily do as much harm to an individual or their property as assault or theft can do, and if the speech is false, the liar must make restitution for that harm. There is of course the risk that under pressure from progressives, courts will try to prosecute Christians for defamation when they boldly call out certain sins, but the proper defense of this is to stake our claim on truth, not to deny that words have consequences—both before God and before the law.
Of course, the $49 million in damages that Alex Jones will soon be paying up cannot begin to pay for the damage that he and others like him have wrought to our society by cheapening truth and desensitizing us to the wildest forms of falsehood. Ironically, by undermining the preconditions for rational civil discourse, he has made far more likely the very forms of totalitarianism that he fears and decries. In our increasingly unstable post-truth age, it is critical that Christians take a firm and uncompromising stand for the sanctity of truth and make no excuses for liars.
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