Covington Catholic student Nicholas Sandmann’s $250 million defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post, one of several media organizations that reported on a fraught January encounter between Sandmann and a group of Native American activists in Washington, was dismissed with prejudice Friday in federal court.
In his opinion, Judge William O. Bertelsman wrote the Post could not be found guilty of defamation for reporting on the January 18 interaction, for quoting Native American activists’ description of it or for using subjective terms such as “mocking” and “taunting” to describe the behavior of the Covington Catholic students involved. In a defamation suit, he wrote, the claims at issue must be provably false — not matters of opinion or subjective interpretation.
“These are purely questions of law that bear no relation to the degree of public interest in the underlying events or the political motivations that some have attributed to them,” Bertelsman added.
On Jan. 18, 16-year-old Sandmann was among a group of Covington Catholic students who had participated in the anti-abortion March for Life that afternoon and were waiting for buses near the Lincoln Memorial. While they waited, members of a fringe religious group called the Black Hebrew Israelites began shouting racial and religious taunts at the students.
The Black Hebrew Israelites’ recording of the interaction shows the Native American activists arrived later, after the Covington Catholic students began a series of school spirit chants intended to drown out the Israelites.
The activists were participating in the Indigenous Peoples March, an event intended to draw attention to native issues in the United States. One of them, 65-year-old Omaha tribe member Nathan Phillips, would later tell the news outlets he saw the interaction between the Israelites and students as a confrontation nearing a boiling point.
Singing and playing a drum, he approached Sandmann, who was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap. Sandmann, smiling, didn’t move. Phillips would later say he felt threatened and surrounded; Sandmann, in turn, said he had been trying to convey an air of calm, not to intimidate.
The interaction ended within minutes, but short videos later uploaded to social networks turned it into a conversational flashpoint across the country. The image of the smiling, red-hatted Sandmann face-to-face with Phillips, screencapped from a video posted by a participant in the Indigenous Peoples March, could be interpreted to reinforce a wide variety of political beliefs.
Sandmann and his family sued the Post, CNN and NBC Universal in March, claiming that their news coverage of the incident — including interviews with Phillips and the publication of statements from Covington Catholic officials — was defamatory and had opened the door for widespread damage to Sandmann’s reputation across news and social media.
Bertlesman disagreed. In his 36-page opinion on the Post case, he wrote the paper had not directly impugned Sandmann and had a protected right to quote Phillips’ opinion-based description of the event.
Furthermore, he wrote, the Post could not be implicated in the larger social media backlash against Sandmann for publishing articles that were not provably false.
The Sandmann family’s suits against CNN and NBC Universal remain ongoing.
In a news release Friday night, Sandmann's legal team announced plans to appeal the decision within a few days. Attorney L. Lin Wood, known for filing high-profile cases alleging libel and slander against his clients, wrote: "We look forward to having an appellate court take a fresh look at the issues in this important case.”
Read Judge Bertelsman's complete decision: