Judge Reinstates $250M Defamation Lawsuit Filed against The Washington Post

A federal judge reversed himself and reinstated part of a defamation lawsuit filed by Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann against The Washington Post. The lawsuit alleged that the newspaper libeled the teen in its coverage of his encounter with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial earlier this year.

The federal judge assigned to the case, Judge William O. Bertelsman, originally dismissed the suit back in July on First Amendment grounds. After a request for reconsideration, the Judge reversed himself saying that the libel suit could go forward while narrowing the scope of the suit from 33 published statements to three.

As we previously wrote, the suit alleged that the paper “targeted and bullied” the 16-year-old in articles it published following in the aftermath of an incident involving Nathan Phillips, a Native American advocate, and the teen who was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The incident occurred while the teen was on a school trip with classmates from Covington Catholic High School to the National Mall where they encountered Phillips on the memorial’s steps. The original complaint sought $250 million in damages.

The specifics of what occurred between Phillips and the students was disputed and media coverage of the encounter, including by The Washington Post, sparked heated debate around the country. In his July opinion, Judge Bertelsman accepted Sandmann’s version of the encounter as is required when ruling on a motion to dismiss. Despite accepting the plaintiff’s description of the encounter, the judge ruled that none of the 33 statements identified in the complaint were defamatory and most constituted constitutionally protected opinion.

Based on a proposed First Amended Complaint filed in connection with the motion to reconsider, Judge Bertelsman reconsidered his previous ruling and granted the plaintiff the ability to seek discovery from The Washington Post on three of 33 allegedly libelous statements reported by the paper. In a five-page written order, the judge identified the three allegedly defamatory statements identified in the amended complaint being reinstated, specifically statements that Sandmann had “blocked” Phillips as he ascended the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and “would not allow him to retreat.” “Suffice to say that the Court has given this matter careful review and concludes that ‘justice requires’ that discovery be had regarding these statements and their context,” the judge explained.

The order also found that the proposed amended complaint offered by Sandmann beefed up and clarified its allegations concerning actual malice on the part of The Washington Post. “The Court also notes that the proposed First Amended Complaint makes specific allegations concerning the state of mind of Phillips, the principal source of these statements,” the court wrote. “It alleges in greater detail than the original complaint that Phillips deliberately lied concerning the events at issue, and that he had an unsavory reputation which, but for the defendant’s negligence or malice, would have alerted defendant to this fact.”

Our Chicago defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites criticism of businesses and other matters of public concern. You can view here a federal court decision where we prevailed in a libel per se claim asserting the innocent infringer defense. Here is an arbitration decision where we won a decision in favor our client after we presented evidence and cross-examined the used car dealer defendant at a hearing where we proved that our client’s 20 plus Youtube videos voicing his opinion that a used car dealer committed consumer fraud were true, were protected opinions under the First Amendment, or involved inconsequential and minor errors of fact. We recently required a defendant who publicized an allegedly false lawsuit regarding our client to provide an apology and full retraction as part of a confidential financial settlement following our filing of a $16 million suit for libel per se in federal district court. You can read about that case here.

Lubin Austermuehle’s Cook County defamation and slander lawyers near Evanston and Winnetka have more than three decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state business laws. Our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Elmhurst and Deerfield near Northbrook and Highland Park, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest.

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