Civil and Human Rights

Infowars’ Alex Jones Can’t Duck Charlottesville Defamation Suit

Infowars creator and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who is facing multiple defamation lawsuits over false comments made about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, will have to face another defamation lawsuit, this time over the Charlottesville white supremacist rallies that ended in the death of counter protester Heather Heyer.

A Virginia federal judge ruled on Friday a defamation suit can move forward against Jones, former Florida Rep. Allen West and other right-wing commentators who claimed a former State Department official was a “deep state” operative after he posted video online that showed a white supremacist plow his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 at the “Unite the Right” rally.

Brennan Gilmore recorded the murder of Heyer, a counter protestor at the white nationalist rally on August 12, 2017 as James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his car into the crowd. Days later, conspiracy articles and videos began to claim that Gilmore conspired to orchestrate violence in Charlottesville for political purposes.

Gilmore attended the rally as a counter protester. After he posted the video to Twitter, he said he was harassed and his personal information was shared online, a disgruntled stranger confronted him on the street and an unknown chemical was mailed to his parents’ home.

Along with Jones and West, defendants include Scott Creighton from Tampa, Florida who posted an article that said Gilmore was an accessory to the violence; Derrick Wilburn and Michele Hickford who were connected to a defamatory article; right-wing blog editor James Hoft of Gateway Pundit; and Lee Stranahan and Lee Ann Fleissner also known as Lee Ann McAdoo, who appeared in an Infowars video.

Several of the articles and videos cited in the lawsuit have since been removed from their respective websites.

Attorneys for the defendants argued Gilmore’s defamation claims were caused by “third parties” not named in the lawsuit and Virginia law does not permit wrongful actions of third parties to be included in the calculation of damages.

But in a 68-page opinion filed on Friday, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon said it was the defendants’ publications themselves that were the cause of the alleged injuries and any consideration of First Amendment defense is inappropriate at this stage.

The court did agree that it cannot exercise general personal jurisdiction over any of the defendants, because while they may have participated in isolated rallies or sell dietary supplements to people living in Virginia, that doesn’t mean the defendants are subject to state jurisdiction.

What the court examined was whether each of the 11 defendants directed their articles to a Virginia audience and whether that creates a potential cause of action under Virginia law.

A video Creighton posted attempted to connect Gilmore to a Virginia gubernatorial candidate. Creighton said Gilmore wanted to undermine the alt-right in the lead-up to the next round of elections, which would have focused on a Virginia event and citizen.

The same question was applied to Hoft, McAdoo, Stranahan, Jones, InfoWars, Free Speech Systems, Wilburn and Hickford based on their articles and videos named in Gilmore’s lawsuit. All were found to have directed their content at the same type of audience.

Moon dismissed West from the lawsuit because he said Gilmore did not make a concrete argument that West played a role in creating, editing or publishing the article in question.

Meanwhile, Hoft, Wilburn and Hickford argued they and their limited liability company were protected under the Communications Decency Act, which says they should be protected from third-party content passively hosted on their website.

But Moon writes, “Although Hoft included screenshots from a Reddit thread in his Gateway Pundit article, he contributed significant original content, including a headline, statements about Gilmore, and an assertion that ‘the State Department was involved in [the] Charlottesville rioting and is trying to cover it up” and Wilburn quoted another website’s article, but added a headline and statements as well.

While Gilmore’s defamation lawsuit can move forward, Moon writes that his claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress cannot survive under the state’s statute, because it has been deemed insufficiently severe.

Moon writes, “Indeed, the amended complaint makes clear that Gilmore, although inhibited personally and professionally, continues to maintain employment and occasionally ‘go out’ socially.”

“Victims of vile conspiracy theories should take comfort in Judge Moon’s ruling that Brennan Gilmore’s defamation suit against InfoWars must proceed. Today’s decision shows that the law will protect victims of baseless lies by holding people like Alex Jones accountable for the harm they cause,” Gilmore’s attorney Andrew Mendrala with the Civil Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law, said in a statement.

“As Judge Moon correctly recognized, Alex Jones cannot use the First Amendment as a shield when he makes up lies that injure ordinary Americans like Brennan Gilmore,” said co-counsel Brianne Gorod with the Constitutional Accountability Center.

An email sent to Jones’ attorney for comment was not immediately answered Friday afternoon.