AuthorLueders, Bill
PositionFreedom of speech and the United States Constitution's first amendment

Fifteen years ago, while visiting Harvard University, I sat in on a lecture given at the law school on taboo and the First Amendment by famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, with guest appearances by Steven Pinker and Randall Kennedy. Dershowitz was erudite and earnest, utterly in his element--the word "show" is in his name, after all. When he quizzed his audience on the purpose of the First Amendment, one student ventured that it protected the right to free speech.

Dershowitz erupted. No. No. No. It does no such thing. As I recall him proclaiming, the First Amendment does not protect you from your boss, who in most cases can fire you for the words you choose. It does not protect you from the harsh judgments of others, and the repercussions that can ensue. You can still be sued for defamation or charged with breaking the law.

In fact, what the First Amendment actually does is disallow the government from "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." It offers no more protection from the consequences of expression than that experienced by this hapless law student in Dershowitz's classroom.

This tutorial comes to mind in light of the repercussions from speech currently being experienced by Infowars lunatic Alex Jones. In August, a jury ordered him to pay $49.2 million in damages to the parents of a first-grader murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 2012. It is the first of three defamation cases stemming from Jones's grotesque claim that the mass killing of twenty children and six educators, in Newtown, Connecticut, was fabricated to drum up support for gun control.

Of course, Jones, who at his trial acknowledged the Sandy Hook shooting was "100 percent real," deserves to pay a price for his deliberate lies and cruelty. But sadly, it's highly unlikely that this awarded amount will stand, due to strict caps on punitive damages in Texas, where the judgment was rendered. Jones, a shameless seller of snake oil to his deluded followers, has an estimated net worth of between $135 million and $270 million. He and other "belligerent fabulists," to borrow some words from The New York Times, will go on "building profitable media empires with easily disprovable lies."

Wesley Ball, an attorney for the parents, urged the Texas jury to send a message of rebuke to the fabulists. "I am asking you to take the bullhorn away from Alex Jones and all of the others who believe they can profit off of fear and misinformation," he said in his...

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