Covington Catholic student’s defamation suit against Washington Post dismissed

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Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann’s $250 million lawsuit against the Washington Post was dismissed by a federal judge in Kentucky on Friday, Fox News reported.

Sandmann was seeking damages stemming from the allegedly defamatory manner in which he was portrayed in the Post’s reporting of a January confrontation between a group of students and Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

Viral encounter

At the heart of the litigation was a photo of Sandmann and Phillips facing each other on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which went viral within hours of the event itself. The story received exetensive attention from the Post and countless other news agencies. Sandmann was wearing a Make America Great Again hat and was shown smiling broadly at Phillips.

News coverage accused Sandmann and other students of initiating a hostile encounter and taunting Phillips and other Native American protesters by saying “Build that wall,” “Trump2020,” and “Go back to Africa.” Videos released later showed that the neither Sandmann nor the other students initiated the confrontation and that they only chanted their school’s cheer as a way to try to drown out insults being shouted at them.

Phillips also alleged that Sandmann was trying to block him from leaving the area, but Sandmann denied that claim. The incident took place while the Covington Catholic students were attending the National Right to Life rally and Phillips was attending a Native American protest event taking place in the vicinity on the same day.

First Amendment grounds

The lawsuit alleged that the Post’s reporting triggered threats, bullying and reputational harm directed against Sandmann. Articles and tweets on the Post’s website and social media pages gave a false impression of events and led to a “mob of bullies which attacked, vilified & threatened” Sandmann, according to the complaint in the case.

The suit also claimed that the Washington Post “ignored the truth and falsely accused Nicholas of, among other things, ‘accost[ing]’ Phillips by ‘suddenly swarm[ing]’ him in a ‘threaten[ing]’ and ‘physically intimidat[ing]’ manner.”

U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman ruled that while the Washington Post may have gotten facts wrong in their reporting, the paper was protected by the First Amendment. Phillips stated that he felt intimidated and unable to leave the area, and the Post was within its rights to report his opinion and belief, according to the judge’s findings.

Sandmann’s family said they would appeal the decision. “I believe fighting for justice for my son and family is of vital national importance,” Nicholas’ father Ted Sandmann said. “If what was done to Nicholas is not legally actionable, then no one is safe.”

Truth matters

“The law must protect innocent minors targeted by journalists publishing click-bait sensationalized news,” co-counsel for the Sandmann family Todd McMurtry said in a statement. “This is especially true in the current hyper-partisan political environment.”

While it is true that the Washington Post is protected by the First Amendment, media outlets also have a responsibility to report the truth and should face serious consequences when failing to do so causes undue and irreparable harm to an individual’s reputation and good name.

Clearly, the Washington Post and other news agencies wanted to make Sandmann, a Trump supporter, look like a bigot and a bully. They carelessly rushed to judgment before all salient facts emerged, and with any luck, they will eventually be held accountable for the profound damage inflicted upon this young man.

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