A federal judge has dismissed a $250 million lawsuit filed by a Covington Catholic high school student who accused the Washington Post of falsely describing him as racist and an instigator of a confrontation with a Native American man at a protest in Washington, DC.
Nicholas Sandmann, who was seen in a viral video of the Jan. 18 incident, sued the newspaper for defamation in February, alleging the Post failed to verify the context of the video and, as a result, the teen has faced threats, bullying, and damage to his reputation.
According to court documents, the now 17-year-old alleged the Post’s coverage included 33 defamatory statements in seven articles and three tweets.
However, on Friday, US District Court Judge William Bertelsman granted the Post’s motion to dismiss the complaint.
In his order, Bertelsman said Sandmann alleged that the “gist” of the first article, which did not name him, was that he assaulted or physically intimidated the man, and engaged in racist conduct and taunts. “But this is not supported by the plain language in the article, which states none of those things,” the judge wrote.
Bertelsman added that the article “cannot be reasonably read as charging Sandmann with physically intimidating Phillips or committing the criminal offense of assault.”
Sandmann’s attorneys said in a statement Friday that the teen’s family will appeal the decision.
“The law must protect innocent minors targeted by journalists publishing clickbait sensationalized news,” Todd McMurtry, one of Sandmann’s attorneys, said.
On Jan. 18, Sandmann and a group of teen boys wearing MAGA hats were in Washington, DC, for the national March for Life. Videos showed the boys at the Lincoln Memorial with a Native American veteran, Nathan Phillips, who was singing and playing a drum after the Indigenous Peoples March.
The videos showed some of the teens chanting and making tomahawk chop gestures as Phillips moved through their crowd. But one video tightly focused on Phillips and Sandmann, who stood close to him and stared with a smile or smirk.
Early coverage of the protest described the teens as taunting and surrounding Phillips, who told the Washington Post that Sandmann had blocked his path and that he felt threatened by the teens, some of whom called out “Build the wall.”
Longer videos ultimately provided more context, showing that the confrontations that day were prompted by the Black Hebrew Israelites, whose members were shouting, and arguments with Native American demonstrators and tourists, before the teens arrived. In a statement, Sandmann said he hoped only to diffuse the situation.
Bertelsman said he accepted the teen’s explanation that his was intent was “to calm the situation and not to impede or block anyone.” But the judge also noted that Phillips’ assertions that the was being “blocked” and not allowed to “retreat” were protected as opinions under the First Amendment.
The Washington Post, Bertelsman concluded, “is not liable for publishing these opinions.”