A federal judge dismissed Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann’s lawsuit against the Washington Post that alleged the paper committed libel against him in four stories and three tweets about Sandmann’s confrontation with a Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial. The students were visiting Washington, DC, from their home state of Kentucky to attend an anti-abortion march.
Sandmann had sued the Post for an astounding $250 million dollars, citing damage to his reputation and bullying he endured from reporting he claimed was false and defamatory.
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In his suit, Sandmann claimed that the “gist” of one of the Post’s articles was that he “assaulted” or “physically intimidated” Native American Nathan Phillips and “engaged in racist conduct,” but U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman disagreed: “This is not supported by the plain language in the article, which states none of those things… [The article] cannot be reasonably read as charging Sandmann with physically intimidating Phillips or committing the criminal offense of assault,” he wrote.
Sandmann, who claimed he was trying to defuse a tense situation when he stood in front of Phillips, had also taken issue with the Post quoting Phillips’s telling of the incident.
“The court accepts Sandmann’s statement that, when he was standing motionless in the confrontation with Phillips, his intent was to calm the situation and not impede or block anyone,” Bertelsman wrote. “However, Phillips did not see it that way. He concluded that he was being ‘blocked’ and not allowed to ‘retreat.’ He passed these conclusions on to The Post. They may have been erroneous, but… they are opinion protected by the First Amendment. And The Post is not liable for publishing these opinions.”
The judge continued: “Few principles of law are as well-established as the rule that statements of opinion are not actionable in libel actions. The statements that Sandmann challenges constitute protected opinions that may not form the basis for a defamation claim.”
President Donald Trump tweeted his support of Sandmann at the time the video went viral and sent out a tweet in support of his lawsuit, saying, “Go get them Nick. Fake News!”
“The Washington Post ignored basic journalistic standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump.” Covington student suing WAPO. Go get them Nick. Fake News!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2019
Sandmann and his attorneys said they plan to appeal the ruling. The student’s father, Ted Sandmann, said in a statement: “I believe fighting for justice for my son and family is of vital national importance. If what was done to Nicholas is not legally actionable, then no one is safe.”
But Shani George, communications director for the Post said she was pleased with the ruling. “From our first story on this incident to our last, we sought to report fairly and accurately the facts that could be established from available evidence, the perspectives of all of the participants, and the comments of the responsible church and school officials,” George said. “We are pleased that the case has been dismissed.”
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