July 29, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – On Friday, U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman dismissed Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann’s defamation suit against the Washington Post for the paper’s misleading coverage of him and his classmates at the annual March for Life, but his attorney has vowed to appeal.
Immediately following the January pro-life event Washington, D.C., the press erupted with claims that a video showed boys from the Kentucky religious school harassing Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist, outside the Lincoln Memorial. But additional extended video and firsthand accounts soon revealed that Phillips was the one who waded into the group waiting for its bus and decided to beat a drum inches from Sandmann’s face, while members of the Black Hebrew Israelites fringe group shouted racial taunts at the kids.
The kids had been performing school cheers in an attempt to drown out the harassment, and did not respond to adults’ insults and abuse in kind.
No video showed the teens chanting “build the wall,” as was widely reported.
In addition to the video evidence that vindicated Sandmann and his peers, it then came to light that Phillips did not actually serve in Vietnam as he and multiple media outlets reported he did, has a violent criminal record, and attempted to lead protestors in disrupting Mass at the Basilica of National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – where many pro-life events take place around the March for Life – just one day after he confronted Sandmann.
Sandmann’s lawyers call Phillips a “phony war hero” in their detailed timeline of events that led up to the activist’s accosting of the underage boys.
As additional video came to light many journalists and other public figures quickly deleted their snap condemnations of the students, and an independent investigation commissioned by the Diocese of Covington (which had initially condemned the boys, as had the March for Life itself) cleared the students of wrongdoing.
As various media figures either tried to keep the original narrative alive or refused to unequivocally retract or apologize for their initial claims, attorneys representing the students have threatened numerous defamation suits, including a $250 million suit against the Post.
The paper issued an editor’s note in March admitting that “subsequent reporting, a student’s statement and additional video allow for a more complete assessment of what occurred, either contradicting or failing to confirm accounts provided in that [January 18] story,” but neither retracting nor apologizing for its initial piece.
Sandmann’s legal team responded that the note was little more than damage control, and ultimately insufficient. “If [the press] can get away with this against a 16-year-old boy, then we're all at risk. There has to be change,” Sandmann’s attorney Lin Wood argues.
Bertelsman based his Friday decision on the Post’s initial coverage not specifically mentioning Sandmann by name, its language being constitutionally-protected “rhetorical hyperbole,” and that while Phillips’ version of events may have been “erroneous,” the Post reporting on his “opinion” also falls within the First Amendment’s scope, Fox News reports.
In response, Sandmann’s attorneys and family say they will appeal.
If you wonder how & why our public discourse has deteriorated to its present level, look no further than the order issued in Nicholas’ defamation case against WaPo protecting negligent publication of false & vicious accusations against a minor child. The order must be reversed.
— Lin Wood (@LLinWood) July 26, 2019
“I believe fighting for justice for my son and family is of vital national importance,” Nicholas' father Ted Sandmann said. “If what was done to Nicholas is not legally actionable, then no one is safe.”
Writing at The Federalist, Professor Margot Cleveland of the University of Notre Dame predicts they will fare better before a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel.
“The first area ripe for reversal is Judge Bertelsman’s conclusion that the Post’s articles were not statements ‘concerning’ Sandmann because they referenced the group of students or did not include a name or picture of Sandmann,” she notes. “But, as Sandmann’s attorneys point out, every article included either a link to the viral video of Sandman or a reference to it. And Sandmann was the ‘face’ of those videos.”
Furthermore, Cleveland argues, while Bertelsman concluded that presenting the students as having “surrounded,” “swarmed,” “blocked,” “taunted,” “disrespected,” “confronted,” “accosted,” and “physically intimidated” Phillips were mere statements of opinion, “the common understanding of these words are all a matter of fact, and the videos prove they are false facts.”