A $250 million lawsuit against the Washington Post for defaming a Kentucky high school teen was dismissed by a federal judge on Friday, who cited the media company’s rights to free speech in the decision.
The case drew national attention because of the confusion over the interactions between Covington High School student Nicholas Sandmann and Native American activist Nathan Phillips. Video of their Jan. 19 confrontation showed Sandmann smirking as Phillips banged a drum in close proximity.
Phillips later claimed to media outlets that the students stood in his way and refused him passage, and the Sandmann smirk was taken up on social media as an arrogant and privileged affront, the notion fueled by his MAGA hat.
However, other video of the confrontation determined that the students were waiting for a bus ride and that Phillips initiated the confrontation after racial slurs from a black activist group about the Covington group’s MAGA hats drew attention, causing Phillips to wade into the crowd. Sandmann claimed he didn’t know what to do, so smiled to diffuse the tensions.
Judge William O. Bertelsman rejected the argument that the Washington Post implied inaccurately that Sandmann had behaved in a menacing or violent way. Bertelsman wrote that though the claim by Phillips may have been inaccurate, the Post had a right to publish it and couldn’t be sued for inaccurate reporting. The standard is both false and defamatory.
The statements that were alleged to be defamatory were actually about the Covington students as a group, not Sandmann individually, Bertelsman said.
“And while unfortunate, it is further irrelevant that Sandmann was scorned on social media,” Bertelsman wrote.