Washington Post Says Teen in Viral Video Can't Show Defamation Nor Anti-Trump Bias

The paper tells a Kentucky judge that "politics has nothing to do with this case" and that its coverage of a Jan. 18 incident was "ultimately favorable" to Nicholas Sandmann.
Screengrab/YouTube
Nicholas Sandmann (left) and Nathan Phillips

The Washington Post has moved to dismiss a defamation lawsuit brought by Kentucky teenager Nicholas Sandmann, who on Jan. 18 quickly found himself the talk of social media when a group of students at Covington Catholic High School came face-to-face with Native American activists at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

When observers saw a video clip of the confrontation, some focused on Sandmann, wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat and sporting a seemingly smug grin while watching Native American elder Nathan Phillips. In one of its first stories about the incident, The Washington Post quoted Phillips as saying he felt "threatened by the teens," that they "swarmed around him" and one of them "blocked my way and wouldn't allow me to retreat."

A fuller video depicting what happened was much more ambiguous, and some who were initially critical of Sandmann apologized for snap judgments. The paper itself appended an editor's note to its initial story. Nevertheless, Sandmann has filed lawsuits against both The Washington Post and CNN for what his attorney characterizes as a "modern-day form of McCarthyism."

In a dismissal motion filed Tuesday, The Washington Post stands by its coverage and says it is neither false nor defamatory to report comments by eyewitnesses, including participants speaking publicly about an event that went viral on the Internet.

"Newspapers are often unable to publish a complete account of events when they first come to light," writes the paper's lawyers. "Stories often develop over time, as more witnesses emerge."

The Washington Post points a Kentucky federal judge to its entire coverage of the incident from the initial condemnation of students by the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School to a front-page story offering Sandmann's perspective when he came forward to speak publicly about what happened.

"In short, the articles at issue may not have been flattering of the Covington Catholic students, but they do not give rise to a defamation claim by Sandmann," continues the dismissal motion. "Indeed, the Post's overall coverage — including the articles that the Complaint fails to mention — was not only accurate; it was ultimately favorable to him."

Sandmann disagrees.

He's asking for $250 million in damages after allegedly being falsely accused of instigating the Jan. 18 incident, for stories that he says falsely conveyed the idea that he was engaging in acts of racism. Represented by L. Lin Wood, he accuses The Washington Post of ignoring basic journalism standards to advance a biased agenda against Donald Trump and says the smears shouldn't mean he's an "acceptable casualty in their war against the President."

In response, The Washington Post sticks up for the right to convey the subjective vantage points of those involved, says that the only contested statement in its initial report is "substantially true," that other challenged statements don't carry defamatory meaning and were not "of and concerning" Sandmann himself and, finally, seizes upon the invocation of politics in this defamation case.

"Why … bring this lawsuit accusing the Post of engaging in 'a modern-day form of McCarthyism,' and demanding $250 million in damages — a number chosen, the Complaint explains, because it is the price Jeff Bezos paid for the Post in 2013?" asks the dismissal brief. "The inflammatory rhetoric of the Complaint and the nonstop public promotion of the suit by Plaintiff's counsel suggest one motive: to strike a blow against the Post's allegedly 'biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump.' There is no fact alleged, however, to suggest that the Post's coverage was motivated by an anti-Trump bias—and the prominent, front-page coverage given to Plaintiff's version of events and the investigative findings in his favor belie any such motive. Politics has nothing to do with this case, and law warrants its dismissal."

Here's the full complaint and dismissal motion.