Nick Sandmann, the kid from Covington, Kentucky who was vilified for misconduct towards a Native American that he didn’t engage in, has sued the Washington Post for $250 million. He filed the complaint in the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Northern Division at Covington. You can read the complaint here.
The amount of monetary damages Sandmann seeks corresponds to the amount of cash Jeff Bezos paid when he bought the Post. It’s a ridiculous request, but not entirely atypical of plaintiffs’ damages claims.
The lawsuit describes despicable conduct towards Sandmann and his fellow high school students by the Post. It attributes the Post’s efforts to make these kids seem odious to left-wing, anti-Trump bias. I think the complaint is correct about this.
Whether the lawsuit will hold up legally is another question. I take no position on that question at this point.
It’s worth noting, however, that much of the alleged defamation by the Post consists of quotations from Nathan Phillips, the jerk who confronted the Covington students. Some of it consists of the Post reporting what the students’ own arch-diocese said about them when it rushed to judgment.
The Post will argue, I assume, that it isn’t defamation to quote an eyewitness who got facts wrong. The complaint tries to head off this argument by alleging that the Post “recklessly relied on Phillips.” It notes that Phillips is a political activist with a clear bias.
No doubt. However, I wonder what the implications are of allowing lawsuits against newspapers based on their choice of sources. If the Washington Post can’t rely on biased sources, its national news pages would be quite thin.
That might not be a bad thing, but I wonder whether it’s what the First Amendment contemplates.
On the other hand, the Post has special defenses against most of the conservatives it smears in its new pages, because most of its targets are public figures. Unlike ordinary citizens, public figures must show actual malice, not mere negligence, to sustain a defamation claim. Thus, a “negligent sourcing” claim presumably wouldn’t fly in a suit brought by a public figure, even if it succeeded in a case like Sandmann’s. But a “reckless sourcing” claim might.
The Post reported, without quoting anyone, that the Covington students chanted “Build That Wall,” something the complaint says didn’t happen. But is it defamation to wrongly accuse someone of chanting this? Certainly it will make some people think worse of the students (and some think better of them). But the Post reported accurately that Sandmann and others wore MAGA hats. Would chanting “Build That Wall” add any loss of reputation to that already induced by the hats?
Note, too, that it’s some people in the March for Life crowd, not Sandmann specifically, who are accused of the chanting. This is true, as well, of other chants and statements the Post falsely said were directed at Phillips. Was Sandmann defamed by the Post’s reports about what some students said? I don’t think so.
Sandmann’s lawyers, Lin Wood and Todd McMurtry, say that more lawsuits are coming. Such suits, like this one, will focus public attention on the journalistic misconduct of outlets like the Post, and the bias against Donald Trump, white teenage males, and believing Catholics that produced it. If they succeed in court based on the fair application of defamation law and without undercutting the First Amendment, all the better.