Civil and Human Rights

Center of conspiracy: Defamation suit targets Alex Jones

Infowars founder Alex Jones has made a career out of broadcasting anti-government and right-wing conspiracy theories on his website and various radio shows. Last year, he put local man Brennan Gilmore in his crosshairs, alleging that the Charlottesville musician is a deep state operative on George Soros’ personal payroll who helped orchestrate the August 12, 2017, car attack. But Gilmore is fighting back with a federal defamation lawsuit, which he filed last spring.

Attorneys for Jones and multiple other defendants were in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia on November 13 to argue motions to dismiss the lawsuit. They say Gilmore’s crew filed the lawsuit in the wrong court, and moreover, that their clients’ actions were protected by the First Amendment.

If Gilmore’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s taken on several roles across town, including playing guitar in Wild Common, being Tom Perriello’s chief of staff during the Democrat’s gubernatorial run, and filming a video that immediately went viral of a Dodge Challenger ramming into a group of counterprotesters at the August 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally.

It’s that video that has made him a target for right-wing conspiracy theories allegedly created by Jones and other defendants, who are listed as Lee Stranahan, Lee Ann McAdoo, Scott Creighton, James Hoft, Derrick Wilburn, former Florida Republican congressman Allen B. West, and Free Speech Systems, LLC.

Defense attorney Andrew Grossman drew specific attention to an August 15 interview of former Breitbart News employee Stranahan by Infowars reporter McAdoo, in which they suggest that Gilmore’s involvement in the car attack was intended to stage a coup to overthrow the president.

Grossman, who came from Washington, D.C., called it “the kind of exaggerated rhetoric that can not be taken literally,” and suggested that such hyperbole is often used in the news.

But the plaintiffs don’t agree, and allege that Jones’ claims of thorough fact-checking can’t be true.

“Fact-based journalism is essential to our democracy, because it provides citizens with objective, reality-based information on issues of public concern,” says their lawsuit. “Defendants are not fact-based journalists. Defendants spread lies to construct false narratives that terrify a gullible audience, all in a desperate attempt to generate revenue and momentum for a hateful agenda.”

Grossman said plaintiffs were drawing their own conclusions about what Jones meant by some of his statements. “That’s not how defamation works,” the attorney said. “You can’t sue someone over an alleged interpretation.”

He also said that because Gilmore is a public figure, the judge must find that defendants committed actual malice to classify their statements as defamatory.

But Elizabeth Wydra, who is the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center in D.C. and one of several attorneys representing Gilmore, said it was the defendants who made Gilmore a public figure by their outrageous claims against him.

Outside the courthouse, she said, “We shouldn’t have everyday citizens dragged through the mud—dragged into the spotlight—simply because they happened to witness something that is of public interest.”

She said folks like Jones and other defendants shouldn’t be able to hide behind the First Amendment when they publish “terrible claims,” such as the one connecting her client to the murder of Heather Heyer.

“The law does not protect that,” says Wydra. “There are consequences when you speak and act in a way that creates harm to a person like Mr. Gilmore, who suffered threats. He’s suffered harassment, he’s suffered harm to his reputation.”

Added Gilmore, “I just want to ensure that the next person who finds himself in that position, they don’t have to suffer the same injury. That’s why we’re here today.”

Manassas-based defense attorney Aaron Walker, who represents about half a dozen of the defendants, told reporters that a ruling in favor of Gilmore could be the beginning of the “death of the freedom of the press.”

“This is a dangerous case, to be blunt,” said Walker, and taking a dig at the plaintiffs’ stance on his clients, he said, “They just don’t like their opinions.”

To be fair, neither does he. On the topic of Jones, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “the most prolific conspiracy theorist in America,” he said, “I dislike him, personally.”

Judge Norman Moon has not yet ruled on whether the lawsuit will proceed. Jones, meanwhile, is embroiled in multiple other defamation lawsuits filed by relatives of children killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, after Jones falsely claimed that the shooting was staged by the government and that the parents of the murdered children were “crisis actors.”

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