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Covington Catholic student’s family hits the Washington Post with $250 million lawsuit

They say it’s not political.

Sleepy Eye LaFromboise beats a drum as Nathaniel Hall, a diocese member, prays to a rosary, at a protest outside the Covington Catholic Diocese on January 22, 2019
Sleepy Eye LaFromboise beats a drum as Nathaniel Hall, a diocese member, prays to a rosary, at a protest outside the Covington Catholic Diocese on January 22, 2019.
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The Covington Catholic High School teen is back — and armed with a $250 million lawsuit against the Washington Post.

The family of Nick Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing Kentucky teen captured in a standoff with a Native American elder in a video that went viral in January, filed a defamation lawsuit against the Post on Tuesday. The family’s lawyers allege the Post “engaged in a modern-day form of McCarthyism” with its coverage of the incident and “wrongfully targeted and bullied” Sandmann.

“The Post bullied an innocent child with an absolute disregard for the pain and destruction its attacks would cause to his life,” attorneys L. Lin Wood and Todd McMurtry wrote in the suit, which was posted on their website and which they say was filed in the Eastern District of Kentucky.

It’s not clear why lawyers are targeting the Post specifically, since plenty of news outlets — including Vox — covered the story extensively. Fox News points out that Sandmann’s lawyers earlier this month sent more than 50 preservation letters — a warning that litigation might be coming — to over 50 media organizations, celebrities, and politicians.

The amount the family is seeking in damages, $250 million, is the amount Amazon CEO and frequent Donald Trump target Jeff Bezos paid for the Post when he bought it in 2013. Sandmann’s lawyers claim the suit is not brought with a political agenda. Wood, one of Sandmann’s attorneys, did not return a request for comment on the decision to target the Post.

Trump has already taken notice of the suit. “Go get them Nick. Fake News!” he wrote in a tweet on Wednesday.

Kristine Coratti Kelly, a spokesperson for the Post, said in an email to Vox, “We are reviewing a copy of the lawsuit, and we plan to mount a vigorous defense.”

A brief refresher on the Covington Catholic story

Because the news moves a million miles an hour lately, here’s a brief refresher on the background: On January 18, videos surfaced online showing Sandmann staring at Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder, as Phillips sang and played the drum at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The two were surrounded by Sandmann’s classmates, many of whom were wearing MAGA hats (as was Sandmann), chanting, and jumping. They had attended the anti-abortion March for Life rally earlier that day.

The initial narrative was that the boys were harassing Phillips, but more layers were later added to the story: Longer videos emerged showing a few members of the Black Hebrew Israelites taunting the students, and Phillips says he stepped in to try to defuse the tension. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, extremists in the Black Hebrew Israelites movement have a “long, strange list of enemies” including white people, Jewish people, and the LBGTQ community.

Some observers, including Phillips, said they heard the boys chanting “build that wall” and “Trump 2020,” but those chants aren’t audible in the videos. Videos do show some of the students doing a “tomahawk chop.”

As more details emerged about what happened, those who were quick to react to the initial videos came under scrutiny for jumping to conclusions too soon. At Reason, Robby Soave slammed the media for its handling of the situation, claiming that it “wildly mischaracterized” the video.

Phillips took part in a number of media interviews after the incident. Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm, and Sandmann did an interview on the Today show, in which he said he wasn’t sorry for what happened. Phillips was also interviewed on Today.

The Diocese of Covington initially condemned the boys but later commissioned an independent firm, Greater Cincinnati Investigation Inc., to investigate the matter further. Last week, the firm released a four-page report — which was covered by the Post — saying investigators found that Sandmann and his classmates hadn’t behaved in an offensive manner on the day of the incident or instigated the confrontation.

The Sandmanns’ lawsuit also mentions the investigation, which concluded that there was no evidence that students responded to taunts against them with “offensive or racist statements of their own.”

This story just won’t go away

The Covington Catholic story won’t go away, even though it was a relatively small incident that happened more than a month ago. And even as the controversy continues, the truth is that we’re never going to know exactly what happened that day.

Vox’s Zack Beauchamp delved into why the incident struck such a nerve:

The left, which sees white supremacy as one of its fundamental enemies, was quick — in some cases, too quick — to identify Sandmann and his classmates as villains. The right’s reaction, in turn, revealed several of its core animating assumptions that white Christians are persecuted minorities, that overzealous social justice warriors represent an existential threat to a free society, and that the media is on their enemies’ sides. This led them to be credulous — in some cases, too credulous — of the boys wearing MAGA hats.

It’s not clear how the Sandmanns’ lawsuit will play out, or whether there will be others. It is, of course, notable that the family is targeting the Post, President Trump’s media enemy No. 1, and Bezos, whom the president frequently targets as well. Plenty of outlets covered the incident and ran with the initial narrative.

“Ironically, other outfits were even more wildly off the mark, but the Post appears to be the designated defendant,” Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said in an email to Vox.

He said this could make for an “interesting case” and qualify as “reckless disregard” on the part of the media, but it’s complicated. “The fact that this was a student and non-public figure makes it all the more dangerous for media defendants,” Turley said. “The filing portrays this as a ‘campaign,’ which would be hard to prove. However, various media outlets seemed willfully blind to the countervailing facts and stuck with the narrative of a group of MAGA-hat wearing thugs ‘swarming’ a Native American war veteran. The harm to the student is obvious, but the harm to journalism may be even more pronounced.”

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