The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
As multiple sources report, Nick Sandmann–the Kentucky student known as the "MAGA hat teen" whose recent confrontation with Native American activist Nathan Phillips on the National Mall made headlines–is suing the Washington Post for its coverage of the event, to the tune of $250 million. Sandmann's attorneys reproduce their complaint here. While the complaint is quite the mix of non-legal accusations and legal claims, the main legal basis at this time is alleged defamation. Some of the claims are as follows:
The Post published its False and Defamatory Accusations negligently and with actual knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth.
As one of the world's leading news outlets, the Post knew but ignored the importance of verifying damaging, and in this case, incendiary accusations against a minor child prior to publication.
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.
Instead of investigation and publishing the true story, the Post recklessly rushed to publish its False and Defamatory Accusations in order to advance its own political agenda against President Trump.
In doing so, the Post lifted the incident from social media and placed it in the mainstream media, giving its False and Defamatory Accusations credibility and permanence.
Other claims involve failure to investigate and use of biased sources, among others. Some expert practitioners are skeptical of the lawsuit's merits. They emphasize, for example, that who got in whose face between Sandmann and Phillips is a matter of opinion rather than a verifiable fact.
What happened during the encounter is a story that developed over several days, with more video footage and testimony surfacing along the way, and I would be surprised if the court held the Washington Post to the standard of knowledge and investigation that Sandmann's lawyers seem to expect. It is also not too clear who the "unbiased" witnesses (is there such a thing?) are that the Post should have interrogated before printing any story. To this day, the Internet debates what exactly happened on that day. It is doubtful that a newspaper will be held liable for essentially failing to take the plaintiff's side in the controversy.