A very significant ruling in the media law world came Friday: A federal judge in Kentucky dismissed a $250 million defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post.
High school student Nicholas Sandmann filed the lawsuit after video of his encounter with Native American elder Nathan Phillips at a March for Life rally in Washington, DC, went viral online.
Soon after, additional footage provided more context of the incident, but the first video had already touched off accusations of bigotry. Sandmann at the time strongly denied accusations of bigotry, saying he had actually been trying to “defuse the situation” by “remaining motionless and calm.”
The judge who oversaw the case, William O. Bertlesman, said in his dismissal, “The Court accepts Sandmann’s statement that, when he was standing motionless in the confrontation with Phillips, his intent was to calm the situation and not to impede or block anyone. However, Phillips did not see it that way. He concluded that he was being ‘blocked’ and not allowed to ‘retreat.’ He passed these conclusions on to The Post. They may have been erroneous, but as discussed above, they are opinion protected by the First Amendment. And The Post is not liable for publishing these opinions.”
The Washington Post said it’s “pleased” with the judge’s decision.
“From our first story on this incident to our last, we sought to report fairly and accurately the facts that could be established from available evidence, the perspectives of all of the participants, and the comments of the responsible church and school officials,” a WaPo spokesperson said in a statement.
Sandmann’s parents told WaPo that they plan to appeal the decision. “I believe fighting for justice for my son and family is of vital national importance,” Ted Sandmann told the newspaper. “If what was done to Nicholas is not legally actionable, then no one is safe.”
Other lawsuits filed by the family against CNN and NBC are pending. The court may rule in the coming weeks. Multiple media lawyers told CNN Business that the Post was facing the toughest set of facts with regard to Sandmann coverage, so Friday’s ruling may bode well for the other news outlets, but lawyers know not to count any chickens until they hatch.