The Heavy Price of Publishing Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories

A 2015 book peddling a conspiracy theory about the Sandy Hook mass shooting attack led to real-life consequences for its two authors.

The book, “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook: It Was a FEMA Drill to Promote Gun Control,” by James H. Fetzer and Mike Palecek promoted what would become a common line of attack involving the 2012 massacre, which did in fact cause the deaths of 26 people. The book was quickly pulled from Amazon’s online store, but a synopsis for it reads:

The research shows that the school was used to conduct an elaborate drill, and that no children in fact were present and therefore no children died. The drill was done to promote the gun control agenda of then-attorney general Eric Holder and the president of the United States Barack Obama.

None of this is true. But that did not stop the authors from complaining after it was removed despite a “brisk sale” of 500 copies.

The authors were later sued for defamation by Lenny Pozner, whose six-year-old son Noah was among those killed in the shooting attack and who was subsequently harassed for years by “truthers” claiming that he made up his son’s death. As the Washington Post reported:

Pozner and his attorney went to great lengths at the defamation trial to prove that Noah Pozner was a real little boy who had lived and died: They gave the judge the death certificate, with raised seal, to counter the allegation in the book that it had been faked; turned over scores of pages of pediatric medical records; and submitted DNA samples from Noah and Lenny Pozner.

Palecek and Fetzer were found guilty of defamation in June 2019. Three months later, after reaching a settlement with Pozner, Palecek said in a statement, “The Court has ruled that the death certificate of Noah Pozner is not a fabrication as stated in the book ‘Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.’ I accept the Court’s ruling without appeal and I apologize for any resulting distress that I may have caused.”

In October 2019, Fetzer was ordered by a jury to pay $450,000 in damages to Pozner. The author, who had been a professor emeritus of science at the University of Minnesota at Duluth before retiring in 2006, leaned on other conspiracy theories in his response to that decision.

“This result represents a significant defeat for collaborative research by citizen journalists in an ongoing effort to offset the pervasive influence of ‘fake news’ about a plethora of events, including JFK, 9/11, the Boston bombing and (even) the moon landing,” he said at the time.

The university’s profile page on Fetzer includes this statement:

James Fetzer is a UMD Philosophy Professor Emeritus and conspiracy theorist. He retired from UMD in 2006. His theories are his own and are not endorsed by the University of Minnesota Duluth or the University of Minnesota System.

As faculty emeriti, Fetzer’s work is protected by the University of Minnesota Regents Policy on Academic Freedom, which protects creative expression and the ability to speak or write on matters of public interest without institutional discipline or restraint.

Pozner acknowledged in his own statement that while he was unlikely to see full compensation from Fetzer, the result in his case was important.

“This sends a message to hoaxers and conspiracy theorists and others, who seek to use Internet to revictimize and terrorize vulnerable people, that their actions have consequences,” he said at the time. “When you defame people online, that has consequences.”

The right-wing channel Infowars published — then deleted — its own content promoting the book, part of its own effort to spin conspiracies around the Sandy Hook attack. That led to a separate slate of defamation lawsuits against Infowars founder Alex Jones, who has been found liable for more than $1.4 billion in damages because of his defamatory claims against the bereaved families.

In March 2023, a judge ordered Jones to provide more thorough financial records after attorneys for the families rejected his proposal to pay $43 million instead.

Jones has filed for bankruptcy; Reuters reported on May 19 2023 that the bereaved families will seek to reverse payments from Jones — including one to his wife for $1 million — in their effort to extract damages from him.

Update 5/23/2023, 1:06 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag