A federal judge reinstated part of a lawsuit against The Washington Post filed by the family of a Kentucky teenager that alleged the newspaper libeled the teen in its coverage of his encounter with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial earlier this year.
Judge William Bertelsman, who rejected the suit in July on First Amendment grounds, said Monday that he would allow it to go forward, but he narrowed its scope from 33 published statements to three.
The family of Nicholas Sandmann filed suit against The Post in February, alleging that the paper “targeted and bullied” the 16-year-old in articles about his role in an incident involving Nathan Phillips, a Native American advocate. The family sought $250 million in damages.
Sandmann was on a school trip with classmates from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky when the students encountered Phillips on the memorial’s steps. Sandmann and some of his classmates were wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats as they chanted school cheers and Phillips, beating a small drum, approached them.
Videos and news accounts, including in The Post, sparked a heated national debate over what happened next. Phillips claimed Sandmann, who stood in Phillips’ path, had blocked Phillips’ progress. Sandmann later denied doing so, saying he had acted respectfully and had no intention of impeding Phillips.
Bertelsman had thrown out the Sandmanns’ claims three months ago, ruling that none of the 33 statements they’d sued over were defamatory and that the majority constituted protected opinion.
“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,” the judge wrote in July.
“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.”
But the judge reconsidered on Monday, saying he would permit discovery to proceed on three statements contained in Post articles, specifically that Sandmann had “blocked” Phillips as he ascended the memorial’s stairs and “would not allow him to retreat.”
Bertelsman didn’t explain why he reconsidered and found these statements to be potentially defamatory now.
“Suffice to say that the Court has given this matter careful review and concludes that ‘justice requires’ that discovery be had regarding these statements and their context,” he wrote in his five-page order.
The Sandmanns’ original legal complaint cast The Post’s coverage of the incident in political terms. It claimed that The Post “ignored basic journalist standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump by impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the President.” The Post denied any such motivation.
Trump himself cheered the suit in February, tweeting, “Go get them Nick. Fake News!”
The Sandmanns have also sued CNN and NBC over their coverage of the story; both news organizations have filed motions to dismiss, which are pending.
Lin Wood, the Sandmann family’s lead attorney, said in an interview that he was “extremely pleased” by the judge’s reversal of his earlier order. “We look forward to engaging in full discovery to develop the factual record in this case, which we believe will ultimately lead to The Post being held accountable for its accusatory coverage of Nicholas Sandmann,” he said.
The ruling, he said, bodes well for similar defamation lawsuits the Sandmanns have filed against CNN and NBC for their coverage of the Lincoln Memorial incident.
A Post representative declined to comment.