Nick Sandmann files $250 million defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post

The $250 million is divided into one part compensatory damages and four parts punitive damages. If you’re wondering what sort of profession a 16-year-old might be eyeing such that he may conceivably incur $50 million in lost compensation from all this, you should understand that that figure is symbolic: It’s “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,” per the complaint posted on Sandmann’s lawyers’ website, which you can read in full here.

One important detail that sets this claim apart from most high-profile defamation suit is the notoriety of the plaintiff — or lack thereof. Usually when a newspaper is sued it’s by a public figure; a public figure needs to prove that a false statement of fact was made with actual malice, i.e. that the paper knew it was false or recklessly disregarded whether it might be false before publishing. A private figure, which is how Sandmann will probably be categorized by a court, need only show that a false statement of fact was made negligently. No “actual malice” needed. An honest mistake caused by the paper’s failure to investigate with reasonable thoroughness what happened between him and Nathan Phillips could be sufficient to let him prevail.

I mean, not to the point where he’s going to get a check for $250 million. But he might get a check for something.

The negligence and actual malice of the Post is demonstrated by its utter and knowing disregard for the truth available in the complete video of the January 18 incident which was available contemporaneously with the edited clip the Post chose because it appeared to support its biased narrative…

Phillips, himself, is wholly unreliable and lacks credibility as shown in part by his false claim to have served in Vietnam while a member of the military, as a professional activist with a known bias against President Trump and his supporters, his documented history of making similar false accusations, his use of the January 18 incident to promote his own political and personal agenda, the contradictions in his story established in his interviews, and that the video evidence that totally refute his story…

The Post had obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of its purported firsthand sources, including because they are manifestly biased and because the short video evidence on which the Post relied did not show Nicholas or the students swarming Phillips, uttering the chants or slurs they were accused of making, or Nicholas or the students blocking Phillips’ egress.

That’s the nitty gritty of the negligence/recklessness claim. There are other passages that are more politically bent, no doubt written in the awareness that a lot of politically active righties who don’t normally sift through long defamation pleadings are going to pore over this one. E.g.,

The Post negligently and recklessly published its False and Defamatory Accusations in derogation of accepted principles of journalistic ethics, including by wrongfully placing the anti-Trump, anti-Catholic, and pro-life agenda over the harm its False and Defamatory Accusations caused to Nicholas…

The Post published its False and Defamatory Accusations with common law malice, including because it intended to harm Nicholas because he was a white, Catholic boy wearing a MAGA hat, and consciously ignored the threats of harm that it knew would inevitably ensue, in favor of its political agenda.

I think they mean “pro-choice agenda” in that first paragraph. Regardless, I’m not sure how they’ll prove anything about motive. (Not that they need to in order to recover here.) It seems highly likely to me that WaPo leaped on this story because their first-blush reaction to the video confirmed their biased assumptions about how white kids in MAGA hats behave towards minorities, but there’s likely to be no hard evidence of it. Maybe discovery will turn up an interesting email among the reporters, if the case even makes it that far, but it’s likely to remain a mere supposition.

There are too many quotations from WaPo’s coverage offered as false and defamatory in the complaint for me to excerpt them here, so click and read for yourself. Many of them refer to how “students” from Covington behaved without mentioning Sandmann specifically. Can Sandmann recover damages for the claim, “Phillips said he heard students shout, ‘Go back to Africa!’” when he isn’t specified as one of the shouters? (His lawyers refer repeatedly to the defamatory “gist” of WaPo’s stories, which I take it is their way of trying to solve that problem.) Some of the claims where he is mentioned don’t seem obviously defamatory either. For instance:

“Most of the students moved out of his way, the video shows. But Sandmann stayed still. Asked why he felt the need to walk into the group of students, Phillips said he was trying to reach the top of the memorial, where friends were standing. But Phillips also said he saw more than a teenage boy in front of him. He saw a long history of white oppression of Native Americans. ‘Why should I go around him?’ he asked. ‘I’m just thinking of 500 years of genocide in this country, what your people have done. You don’t even see me as a human being.’”

Which statement of fact there is a damaging falsehood negligently published? It’s just Phillips chattering about his historical grievances.

Eh. Even if he doesn’t win, you can understand the impulse to file this claim. Whether or not the Post, specifically, smeared him, he and his classmates were smeared relentlessly in the days after the original video went viral by the woke detritus that populates the Internet. Filing the defamation suit is a way of announcing to the world, not just the Post, “You were wrong, it’s unfair, and these kids deserve to have that fact recognized.” It’ll hopefully succeed in that effort even if it fails in court.