Nicholas Sandmann, a Covington Catholic teenager and the face of the debacle in front of the Lincoln Memorial in January, is suing the Washington Post in federal court in the Eastern District of Kentucky for $250 million — the amount of money Amazon founder Jeff Bezos initially paid for the paper in 2013. In a lawsuit filed by his parents Ted and Julie Sandmann, the family of the 16-year-old is seeking a quarter-billion in damages for the Post’s initial coverage of the event. The suit says the paper described Sandmann as the instigator in a confrontation with Native American activist Nathan Phillips, “‘accost[ing]’ Phillips by ‘suddenly swarm[ing]’ him in a ‘threaten[ing]’ and ‘physically intimidat[ing]’ manner.” Reports later emerged that Sandmann and the Covington students did not initiate the conflict, a clarification that could cause the Post to pay out the most expensive defamation award in U.S. history, besting a 1997 case in which a brokerage firm sued the Wall Street Journal and won some $222.7 million.
Such a massive payout is unlikely though, considering the stringent libel laws in the United States, and some of the more outlandish statements in the plaintiff’s complaint published on Wednesday. In a post titled “For truth, for justice, for Nicholas!” Sandmann’s legal team laid out their argument for why their client — a teenager perceived by the media as an avatar of white male entitlement — is entitled to a ridiculous sum of money. The lawyers, Lin Wood and Todd McMurtry, come out swinging for the fences in the introduction:
1. 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.
2. 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 plaintiff’s complaint presents a potentially legitimate argument — a major outlet harmed the reputation of a minor by misstating the context in the initial reporting of a national event — that is undermined by its language, which borders on the overzealous. The lawyers claim that the Post targeted Sandmann “using its vast financial resources … to smear a young boy who was in its view an acceptable casualty in their war against the President.” They continue: “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.” Despite the excitable language, lawyer Lin Wood does have significant experience in the field, working on libel cases for Herman Cain, for the brother of JonBenét Ramsey, and for the family of Richard Jewell, who was falsely accused of bombing the 1996 Olympics.
In a statement to Reuters, the Washington Post responded to the legal challenge: “We are reviewing a copy of the lawsuit and we plan to mount a vigorous defense.” In their argument, the Post will have to prove that they did not defame Sandmann, countering his attorney’s claims that the Post knew, or seriously suspected, that their reporting was false. Most likely, the paper will present the case that Sandmann was a limited public figure, described in a 1974 ruling as an individual who has “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.”
It’s a long-shot possibility that libel cases like Sandmann’s will be easier to pursue in the near future. On Tuesday, Clarence Thomas called for a reversal of the Supreme Court’s main precedent on such cases — New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which established the actual malice standard and ended the Jim Crow practice of suing newspapers for defamation for reporting on racist practices in the South. It would certainly line up with the president’s view on the matter; in January, he called American libel laws a “sham and a disgrace [that] do not represent American values and American fairness.”
This post has been updated to reflect the Washington Post’s potential defense against the defamation claim.