The family of the Kentucky teen whose confrontation with a Native American advocate in D.C. sparked nationwide controversy is suing the Washington Post for $250 million in damages, arguing the student was defamed, “targeted and bullied” as a result of the reporting.
The lawyer for Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High School junior featured in the viral video that stirred public outrage, compared the reporting of the Post and others to “modern-day” McCarthyism in the lawsuit. The suit was filed in a U.S. District Court in Kentucky Tuesday by Nick’s parents, Ted and Julie Sandmann, since Nick is a minor. The family also hired a PR team associated with GOP leader Mitch McConnell after the incident.
WaPo says the lawsuit is seeking $250 million because that’s the amount that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the richest person in the world — paid for the Post when he acquired it in 2013.
“The Post ignored basic journalist standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump,” the lawsuit alleges.
President Donald Trump tweeted in support of the lawsuit Wednesday morning, writing: “Go get them Nick. Fake News!”
The short video that lit up social media last month showed Nick in a red “Make America Great Again” cap, smirking in the face of the Native activist, Nathan Phillips, in a standoff at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Phillips had approached Sandmann and his classmates beating a ceremonial drum in what he said was a plea for peace amid an escalating situation between the teens and a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites protesting nearby. Phillips was in D.C. to take part in the Indigenous Peoples March; Sandmann was there on a school field trip to the anti-abortion March for Life event. After the video went viral, other videos surfaced showing the lead-up to the standoff, where students were being berated by the Black Hebrew Israelites.
Sandmann told the “Today” show that he was confused by the interaction and was trying to “defuse the situation” by standing there and smiling.
Earlier this month, Sandmann’s lawyers sent letters to several media outlets including the Post, the New York Times, CNN, NPR, the Guardian and others, saying they’d “crossed the line,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The letters asked the organizations not to destroy any documents in connection with the incident, seen as a possible first step in a series of defamation lawsuits.
“We plan to mount a vigorous defense,” Kristine Coratti Kelly, the vice president of communications for The Post, said in a statement sent to numerous media outlets.
In their lawsuit filed Tuesday, Sandmann’s attorneys argue the teen is a private figure and that the Post acted with “actual malice,” or a standard for libel where the plaintiff has to prove the defendant published a statement “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." The “actual malice” standard, established through the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan ruling, can be difficult to prove. In a separate matter unrelated to this case, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas criticized the ruling and the “actual malice” standard on Tuesday, saying it was an example of “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.”
Cover: Snow covers the grounds of Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. The school has received national attention in the wake of videos showing students from the school mocking Native Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a rally in Washington. (AP Photo/Lisa Cornwell)