On Dec. 14, 2012, 26 students and teachers were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Since that devastating day, families of the victims have not only been left to grapple with the unimaginable pain of losing loved ones, but they have been continuously re-victimized by those who deny the shooting ever occurred.
This belief was born in the immediate aftermath of the shooting by conservative talk-show host Alex Jones who repeatedly spewed fallacies about the tragedy, labeling it a “government operation” and a “hoax,” staged to enable the government to “go after our guns.” Perhaps most perniciously of all, he called the victims and their families “crisis actors.”
Jones’ comments weren’t just empty words; his rhetoric encouraged people to actively pursue the victims’ families. Jackie and Mark Barden, for example, lost their seven-year-old son Daniel; they shared that “one person wrote they peed on Daniel’s grave and someone else wrote they were going to dig up Daniel’s grave because they didn’t believe he was in there.” For years, these families have withstood the unimaginable; they were delegitimized and harangued to the point where some were forced to move thousands of miles away and travel under aliases.
In 2018, after years of harassment, a number of these families, as well as one of the FBI agents who responded to the shooting, sued Alex Jones for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
I had the honor of sitting down for a conversation with Chris Mattei, lead counsel for the plaintiff.
A graduate of Georgetown University and UCONN Law School, Mr. Mattei served as Assistant United States Attorney before joining his current firm, Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder. Prior to taking this case, Mr. Mattei had previously worked on a lawsuit against Remington Arms, the manufacturer of the gun used at Sandy Hook.
Mr. Mattei recounted the preparation that went into a case of such magnitude; he spent countless hours watching Jones’ show and reading InfoWars to pick up on Jones’ shticks in hopes that they would offer insight into his thinking. Then, it was about using the patterns he noticed to his advantage. “The important thing for the jury to see is not what he says, but what kind of person he is,” Mr. Mattei explained.
When it came time for Jones to take the stand, Mr. Mattei returned to the behaviors he picked up on; sure enough, Jones’ cross-examination culminated in an outburst, as he lashed out at Mr. Mattei, in an attempt to evade his question.
The trial also provided an opportunity for the plaintiffs to share the traumatic experiences they have endured as a result of Jones’ lies. “It was really important to the families to be able to have that confrontation with him,” Mr. Mattei said.
While Mr. Mattei was building his defamation case, Jones was busy painting the trial as an attack on his First Amendment rights; he arrived at the courthouse on the day of his testimony with a piece of tape over his mouth, reading “Save the 1st.”
Mr. Mattei explained that, despite his claims, flagitious lies like Jones’ have actually never been protected by the First Amendment; even prior to our Constitution there were defamation lawsuits, indicative of just how sacred these protections have always been in our country. “In the United States, we don’t make ideas illegal, even horrible ideas,” Mr. Mattei said. “But, that’s not what Alex Jones was doing. He wasn’t stating an opinion. He was lying about people faking their children’s death, and there’s no constitutional protection of that.”
Mr. Mattei elaborated on why lies like these are so dangerous. “When somebody lies in a way that can permeate society, all of a sudden, a democracy that depends on an informed citizenry to make decisions about their own fate and destiny can’t do that,” he asserted. “Because they’re relying on lies rather than the truth, they’re not able to make informed decisions in their own best interest.”
Mr. Mattei revealed that, at a minimum, Jones’ lies received 550 million impressions on social media alone – not accounting for those he reached through his website and radio show. He indoctrinated his followers to the point of action, which has undoubtedly had disastrous effects on both the citizens of our country and our democracy as a whole.
Thankfully, Mr. Mattei’s efforts were ultimately successful, and, on Oct. 12, 2022, the jury awarded $965 million in compensatory damages to the 15 plaintiffs.
Mr. Mattei is optimistic that this verdict will serve as an example of the consequences of spreading misinformation. “One of the things we hoped that this case would accomplish would be to reset incentives for people in the media, particularly people who make a living off lying,” he said.
Perhaps there is no more important time than now for a conversation about the detrimental effects of lies on our country. A recent NBC poll indicates that 61% of the Republican Party still believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen, despite no evidence to indicate widespread voter fraud.
Similarly, the national response to mass shootings, particularly since Sandy Hook in 2012, has shifted more and more towards denial of their legitimacy. “Because Alex Jones has, for years, inculcated in his audience this idea that mass shootings are, more likely than not, staged events, you’re always going to have people that think that,” Mr. Mattei lamented.
While there is no way to tell what the long-term impact of this verdict will be, many believe it’s a step in the right direction toward restoring the integrity of our democracy. “There is something really basic and humane about this verdict,” Mr. Mattei said. “Six total strangers. Different walks of life. Different phases of life. Different education levels, income levels, racial, ethnic backgrounds. It’s a beautiful thing. They all had to unanimously agree – and they did.”