Covington, Kentucky high schooler Nicholas Sandmann can proceed with his $250 million lawsuit against the Washington Post, as a District Court judge has reversed his previous ruling dismissing the case. He will now allow three counts to proceed.
Judge William O. Bertelsman of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky’s new ruling means Sandmann’s attorneys can start to gather discovery materials. Bertelsman agreed to permit discovery on three of 33 allegedly libelous statements by the Post in its coverage pertaining to Sandmann.
The lawsuit against the Washington Post for defaming Sandmann was earlier dismissed by the judge because of the media company’s rights to free speech.
The case drew national attention because of the confusion over the interactions between Covington High School student 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 he smiled to diffuse the tensions.
Judge Bertelsman originally rejected the argument that the Washington Post implied inaccurately that Sandmann had behaved in a menacing or violent way. 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.
However, three statements from the newspaper’s coverage refer to activist Nathan Phillips being blocked or impeded by Sandmann.
“The Court will adhere to its previous rulings as they pertain to these statements, except Statements 10, 11, and 33, to the extent that these three statements state that plaintiff ‘blocked’ Nathan Phillips and ‘would not allow him to retreat,’” said the Monday ruling. 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. The Court will then consider them anew on summary judgment.”
Sandmann’s attorneys have also filed lawsuits against other media outlets, including CNN and NBCUniversal. His classmates have also initiated lawsuits stemming from the incident, naming Elizabeth Warren, Kathy Griffin and the New York Times Maggie Haberman, among others.