Judge reinstates part of lawsuit filed by Covington student against Washington Post

A federal judge has reinstated part of a lawsuit against The Washington Post alleging that the newspaper defamed a Kentucky teen in its coverage of an encounter between high school students and a Native American activist.

Judge William O. Bertelsman on Monday ruled that the case could enter the discovery phase and that a small part of the initial lawsuit could proceed. The decision came just months after Bertelsman dismissed the case on grounds that The Post’s reporting on the matter was protected by the First Amendment. 

{mosads}The family of Nicholas Sandmann, a Covington Catholic High School student, sued The Post for $250 million in damages in February over its coverage of the teen and his classmates’ encounter with a Native American elder in Washington, D.C. The suit accused the newspaper of having “targeted and bullied” Sandmann and of publishing a “a series of false and defamatory print and online articles” about the incident.

Sandmann had appeared in a viral video in January standing in front of Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder, as Phillips beat a small drum on the Lincoln Memorial’s stairs. Several of Sandmann’s classmates, sporting “Make America Great Again” hats, were chanting and cheering amid the encounter. 

Phillips had claimed that Sandmann blocked his ability to move, though Sandmann has denied doing so, The Post noted

Bertelsman in July cited statutes protecting opinion while dismissing the 33 statements that Sandmann’s family had sued The Post over. He also cited case law while arguing that statements in articles on Sandmann needed to be “more than annoying, offensive or embarrassing

“Few principles of law are as well-established as the rule that statements of opinion are not actionable in libel actions,” Bertelsman wrote. “The statements that Sandmann challenges constitute protected opinions that may not form the basis for a defamation claim.”

After reviewing an amended complaint, Bertelsman ruled Monday that three statements related to The Post’s coverage of Phillips’ claim that Sandmann “blocked” Phillips warranted further review. 

“These three statements state that (Sandmann) ‘blocked’ Nathan Phillips and ‘would not allow him to retreat,'” Bertelsman wrote. “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.”

Bertelsman noted that the amended complaint accuses Phillips of “deliberately” lying about the encounter. The complaint also claims that the Phillips had an “unsavory reputation” that the newspaper should have been aware of in its coverage. 

The Washington Post did not immediately return a request for comment from The Hill. 

Lawsuits by Sandmann’s legal team against NBC and CNN are still pending.  

Tags Ed Case

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