An American teenager who was falsely accused of harassing a Native American activist while wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat has launched a $US250 million defamation case against The Washington Post.
The complaint was filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on Tuesday by prominent defamation lawyer L. Lin Wood on behalf of Covington Catholic high school student Nick Sandmann. It is expected to be the first of many.
“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 $US250 million ($AU350 million) — 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,” the complaint reads.
Kristine Coratti Kelly, vice president of communications at The Washington Post, said in an emailed statement, “We are reviewing a copy of the lawsuit and we plan to mount a vigorous defence.”
Sandmann, a 16-year-old from Kentucky, was on a school trip to Washington to attend a pro-life rally last month when he was confronted by Nathan Phillips in an incident that sparked headlines around the world.
A short video clip of the teen smiling as the 64-year-old bangs a drum in his face went viral online, with Phillips claiming in multiple media interviews that he “felt threatened” as the teens surrounded and racially harassed him.
Longer video of the incident released soon after debunked Phillips’ claims — including that the teens chanted “build that wall” at him — showing it was Phillips who approached the group of students as they waited for their bus.
The students had begun a school chant to drown out verbal abuse from nearby members of the Black Hebrew Israelites hate group, who called them “dirty ass crackers”, “incest babies” and “future school shooters”.
The complaint alleges the Post “rushed to lead the mainstream media to assassinate Nicholas’ character and bully him”. It says the paper “wrongfully targeted” the teen because he was a “white, Catholic student wearing a red ‘Make America Great Again’ souvenir cap”.
“In targeting and bullying Nicholas by falsely accusing him of instigating the January 18 incident, the Post conveyed that Nicholas engaged in acts of racism by ‘swarming’ Phillips, ‘blocking’ his exit away from the students, and otherwise engaging in racist misconduct,” it says.
It accuses the paper of using its “vast financial resources to enter the bully pulpit by publishing a series of false and defamatory print and online articles which effectively provided a worldwide megaphone to Phillips and other anti-Trump individuals and entities to smear a young boy”.
“The Post wanted to lead the charge against this child because he was a pawn in its political war against its political adversary,” it says, describing Sandmann as in the Post’s view “an acceptable casualty in their war against the President”.
The Post also later retracted a claim, widely reported in other media, that Phillips was a Vietnam veteran. Phillips served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1972 to 1976 but was never deployed and left “after disciplinary issues”.
Keep in mind that the first step taken today is just that – the first step on a long journey. In the coming weeks & months, the agenda-driven mainstream & social media mob of bullies who attacked, vilified and threatened a child, Nick Sandmann, will be hearing our footsteps.
— Lin Wood (@LLinWood) February 19, 2019
The complaint says Sandmann suffered “rampant cyber-assault and cyber-bullying” in the aftermath, from the Post as well as “the mob of other bullies made up of other members of the mainstream media, individuals tweeting on Twitter, church officials, celebrities and politicians”.
“The Post must be dealt with the same way every bully is dealt with and that is hold the bully fully accountable for its wrongdoing in a manner which effectively deters the bully from again bullying other children,” it says.
The complaint, which relates to four online articles and two print articles, alleges a number of false and defamatory claims were published “negligently and with actual knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth”.
As a result, it says, Sandmann suffered “permanent harm to his reputation”, will continue to suffer “severe emotional distress” and is “forced to live his life in a constant state of concern over his safety and the safety of his family”.
The complaint outlines a number of Phillip’s “inconsistent and false claims” in media interviews. Sandmann’s lawyers have separately indicated they intend to sue Phillips for his “lies and false accusations” that are “well documented”.
Earlier this month, Sandmann’s lawyers sent out more than 50 “preservation letters” to media outlets, journalists, pundits, politicians, celebrities and Catholic dioceses seeking to prevent the destruction of evidence in advance of potential legal claims.
The list included everyone from New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman and HBO host Bill Maher to celebrities Kathy Griffin, Alyssa Milano and Jim Carrey. Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar and 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren also received letters.
Wood, based in Atlanta, Georgia, is best known for acting on behalf of the late Richard Jewell, who was falsely accused in a “trial by media” of being behind the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing.