Catholic School Teen's Lawyers File $250M Defamation Suit Against The Washington Post; Fail To List Any Actual Defamation

from the pro-se-but-for-retained-legal-representation dept

Lawsuits were threatened after students from a Kentucky Catholic school were portrayed as engaging in racist behavior during an anti-abortion march at the nation's capital. An edited video swiftly circulated the internet, showing student Nick Sandmann facing off with a Native American protester while wearing a seemingly-smug file on his face and a Make America Great Again hat on his head.

More footage of the incident appeared later providing a bit more context, making the obvious racism seem less obvious. But the Twitter ship had sailed and there was little hope of turning it around. Lessons could have been learned from rushing to judgment, but Nick Sandmann and his family's lawyers have decided this lessons should be taught via libel lawsuits. They've got an uphill battle as nearly everything said about Sandmann and the incident was protected opinion, but a lack of credible arguments has never prevented lawsuits from being filed.

As Buzzfeed reports, one of the first targets is the Washington Post. Sandmann's complaint [PDF], composed by attorneys Lin Wood and Todd McMurtry, is about half op-ed, half federal complaint. Here's the lead off:

The Post is a major American daily newspaper published in Washington, D.C. which is credited with inventing the term "McCarthyism" in an editorial cartoon published in 1950. Depicting buckets of tar, the cartoon made fun of then United States Senator Joseph McCarthy's "tarring" tactics of engaging in smear campaigns and character assassination against citizens whose political views made them targets of his accusations.

In a span of three (3) days in January of this year commencing on January 19, the Post engaged in a modern-day form of McCarthyism by competing with CNN and NBC, among others, to claim leadership of a mainstream and social media mob of bullies which attacked, vilified, and threatened Nicholas Sandmann (“Nicholas”), an innocent secondary school child.

The Post wrongfully targeted and bullied Nicholas because he was the white, Catholic student wearing a red “Make America Great Again” souvenir cap on a school field trip to the January 18 March for Life in Washington, D.C. when he was unexpectedly and suddenly confronted by Nathan Phillips (“Phillips”), a known Native American activist, who beat a drum and sang loudly within inches of his face (“the January 18 incident”)

Moving along…

The Post ignored basic journalist standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump (“the President”) by impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the President.

[Scrolls to the bottom of the filing to make sure it wasn't composed by Larry Klayman...]

In this country, our society is dedicated to the protection of children regardless of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, or the cap they wear.

But the Post did not care about protecting Nicholas. To the contrary, the Post raced with a reckless disregard of the facts and truth because in this day and time there is a premium for being the first and loudest media bully.

The Post wanted to lead the charge against this child because he was a pawn in its political war against its political adversary – a war so disconnected and beyond the comprehension of Nicholas that it might as well have been science fiction.

Let's just try to find the factual allegations. It's established that Sandmann's lawyers wish to offer their opinion that the Washington Post is a bully that targeted Nick Sandmann because he supported a president the Post dislikes. But that's all that's been established -- despite the use of the term "defamation" here and there -- by the time the lawsuit drops its first mention of damages. Some weird eye-for-an-eye demand is being made by Sandmann's attorneys.

In order to fully compensate Nicholas for his damages and to punish, deter, and teach the Post a lesson it will never forget, this action seeks money damages in excess of Two Hundred and Fifty Million Dollars ($250,000,000.00) – the amount Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, paid in cash for the Post when his company, Nash Holdings, purchased the newspaper in 2013.

Eight pages in, we finally have an allegation that doesn't sound like an angry blog post:

On January 19, 20 and 21, the Post ignored the truth and falsely accused Nicholas of, among other things, “accost[ing]” Phillips by “suddenly swarm[ing]” him in a “threaten[ing]” and “physically intimidat[ing]” manner as Phillips “and other activists were wrapping up the march and preparing to leave,” “block[ing]” Phillips path, refusing to allow Phillips “to retreat,” “taunting the dispersing indigenous crowd,” chanting “build that wall,” “Trump2020,” or “go back to Africa,” and otherwise engaging in racist and improper conduct which ended only “when Phillips and other activists walked away.

Seems straightforward except for a number of inconvenient facts. As the lawsuit admits, these reports were based on an edited video that led many, many people to the same conclusions. The lawsuit claims the Post acted carelessly by not acting on information it became aware of four days after it published its first article.

By January 23, the Post conceded that the @2020fight account that was largely responsible for the edited video going viral on social media may have been purchased from for that specific purpose.

With no investigation into the @2020fight account, the Post actively, negligently, and recklessly participated in making the 2020fight Video go viral on social media when on January 19 at 9:21 a.m., Post reporter Joe Heim re-posted the 2020fight Video.

The lawsuit says the Post recklessly published a piece on the incident on January 19th, four hours after the edited video went viral. Somehow this is defamatory because the Post "recklessly" did not act on information it didn't have (the extended video posted a day later) prior to publishing this article. Then the lawsuit wanders off to discuss the investigation of the incident by a firm hired by the Catholic school Sandmann attends, as though this should have some bearing on an article published prior to an investigation the Washington Post wasn't involved with.

When it comes to narrow down the alleged defamation, the lawsuit somehow gets even worse. It spends four paragraphs enumerating "false and defamatory gists" -- a legal concept usually offered as a defense, rather than an accusation. Then it accuses the Washington Post of defaming Sandmann by publishing statements made by other people to the Post reporter.

In its First Article, the Post published or republished the following false and defamatory statements:

(a) The headline “‘It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on the MAGA-hat wearing teens who surrounded him.”

(b) “In an interview Saturday, Phillips, 64, said he felt threatened by the teens and that they suddenly swarmed around him as he and other activists were wrapping up the march and preparing to leave.”

(c) “Phillips, who was singing the American Indian Movement song of unity that serves as a ceremony to send the spirits home, said he noticed tensions beginning to escalate when the teens and other apparent participants from the nearby March for Life rally began taunting the dispersing indigenous crowd.”

(d) “A few people in the March for Life crowd began to chant ‘Build that wall, build that wall,’ he said.”

(e) “‘It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’ Phillips recalled. ‘I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.’”

(f) “‘It clearly demonstrates the validity of our concerns about the marginalization and disrespect of Indigenous peoples, and it shows that traditional knowledge is being ignored by those who should listen most closely,’ Darren Thompson, an organizer for the [Indigenous Peoples Movement], said in the statement.

(g) “Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney with the Lakota People Law Project, said the incident lasted about 10 minutes and ended when Phillips and other activists walked away.”

(h) “‘It was an aggressive display of physicality. They were rambunctious and trying to instigate a conflict,’ he said. ‘We were wondering where their chaperones were. [Phillips] was really trying to defuse the situation.’”

(i) “Phillips, an Omaha tribe elder who also fought in the Vietnam war, has encountered anti-Native American sentiments before . . . .”

From there, it discusses about a second article by the Washington Post, alleging it was somehow defamatory for the Post to publish a statement from the Covington Diocese decrying the teen's behavior. It also says a third article from the Post was defamatory -- again listing only things other people said to the Post's reporter. Then there's more stuff about "defamatory gists." And on it goes for several more pages, highlighting each Post article about the subject while failing to point out any defamatory statements actually made by the Washington Post.

This is a garbage lawsuit. It makes zero credible defamation accusations, spending its entirety either stating its own opinions about the paper or attempting to hold it legally responsible for statements made by other people. It's not winnable. Its sole purpose appears to be to exist loudly, hoping to create a deterrent effect simply by banging about the place self-importantly. It will go nowhere, but it will do so as noisily as possible. If this is all Sandmann's parents wanted from their legal representation, they should have accepted the pro bono offers being made, rather than sink money into this ostentatious waste of time.

Filed Under: defamation, free speech, jeff bezos, lin wood, nick sandmann, protest, todd mcmurty
Companies: washington post

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  1. icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 21 Feb 2019 @ 11:38am


    I can't look it up right now because I'm at work, but I saw a very insightful video on YouTube a while back lamenting how there's a worthless, not-funny TV show that's been on the air for well over a decade now that's still going on, not on any actual merit of its own, but simply because it's called The Simpsons, which was also the name of a show that was actually pretty funny waaaaaaay back in the 90s, even though the one today is nothing like that show was.

    I'd respectfully submit that they're not the only such cultural institution that's coasting by today on name recognition despite having long since lost the original "spark" that made them worthwhile in the first place.

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