The Covington Catholic Kids Take the Gloves Off

Their lawsuit seeks to teach the media a lesson it will never forget.

Credit: YouTube Screenshot

Between the total collapse of the Covington Catholic story and the embarrassment of the Jussie Smollett hate hoax, 2019 has been a rough year for America’s embattled mainstream media.

Now, the hostility toward these supposed guardians of democracy that provided some of the energy behind Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign is about to get its day in court. Nick Sandmann, the 16-year-old Covington student who was accused of willfully intimidating the Native American activist Nathan Phillips at this year’s March for Life, has filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post, requesting $250 million in damages.

The court filing, which is available online, is a fascinating read. My first question was how Sandmann’s lawyers came up with the figure of a quarter of a billion dollars, and the document duly provided an answer: it is “the amount Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, paid in cash for the Post…in 2013.” This lawsuit is not about Sandmann’s lost opportunities or mental anguish. It’s about “punish[ing], deter[ring], and teach[ing] the Post a lesson it will never forget.” That kind of rhetorical melodrama seems aimed at journalists, not judges. The goal, quite literally, is to take the paper for everything it’s worth, and make a big splash doing so.

Nor does the combative language end there. Sandmann’s attorneys accuse the Post of “wrongfully placing the anti-Trump, anti-Catholic, and [pro-choice] agenda over the harm its False and Defamatory Accusations caused to Nicholas” and of ignoring “contrary information in favor of its pre-conceived false narrative against President Trump and his supporters.” Sandmann’s name might be at the top of the complaint, but the attorneys who authored it clearly imagine their lawsuit is carrying the banner for every single victim of anti-MAGA discrimination.

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Most of the complaint is devoted to listing and refuting all of the “False and Defamatory Accusations” in an exhaustive and highly repetitive manner. Taken together, the evidence is damning, even if it seems a bit exaggerated at points (such as the insistence that the Post’s seventh article on the incident, which seemed fairly balanced to me, was still defamatory).

Yet the complaint’s bellicose and overtly partisan language, as well as its reliance on the right-wing persecution complex, made me uneasy. So I decided to re-read the Post‘s first story on the Sandmann-Phillips incident. After all, it couldn’t be that bad.

Oh, but it was. Even the headline—“Native American drummer speaks on the MAGA-hat wearing teens who surrounded him”—was false, and has since been updated to say that Phillips “speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens.” The version of the story currently available on the Post’s website also includes a correction, acknowledging that they made a mistake in publishing Phillips’ misleading statement about having served in Vietnam.

Both of these factual errors are unforgivable. As the court filing points out, unedited video of the event was available at the time the story was published. The reporters who wrote the story simply didn’t bother to look for it. Even after the corrections, the updated version of the story still describes Sandmann’s expression as “a relentless smirk” and retains several of Phillips’ statements, such as his claim that the students blocked his way and chanted “Build that wall.” They also include the sappy and totally irrelevant detail that, as he beat his drum, Phillips was “thinking about his wife, Shoshanna, who died of bone marrow cancer nearly four years ago.” The roles of hero and villain were already cast.

From there, the article degenerates into a something akin to the murder of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, as people and groups come forward one by one to sink their knives into Sandmann. Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan, Covington Catholic High School officials, the Diocese of Covington, the mayor of Covington, the guy who started an online petition to fire the principal of Covington Catholic (for God’s sake!), and the Indigenous Peoples Movement all get their turn. And, for good measure, we also get a paragraph about Trump’s taunting of Senator Elizabeth Warren and a Post denunciation of the March for Life.

From the sheer scale of this pile-on, you’d think Sandmann had shot up a school.

If there was any attempt by these reporters to get Sandmann’s side of the story or talk to anyone who was with the Covington group, the article gives no indication of it. This is shoddy journalism, pure and simple, and it’s especially disappointing coming from a paper still basking in the light of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep.

By the seventh article, Sandmann was quoted and the story was becoming more balanced, but the damage was already done. For so many readers, the nuances and even the truth of the story don’t matter. If the MAGA hat is indeed the new white hood, then any attempt to be evenhanded is tantamount to offering aid and comfort to the enemy. One Twitter user summed up this opinion nicely: “Oh yes the kid who was marching against women’s reproductive rights while wearing a hat promoting an evil homophobic racist misogynistic sociopath was TOTALLY misrepresented.”

The details aren’t important when you can simply weigh the race, gender, class, and sexual identities of the parties involved and thereby come to an arithmetical solution. And that’s exactly what Sandmann’s lawyers accuse the Post of doing. The duty of a journalist is to explore every aspect of the story without prejudice, not to paint in broad, politically convenient strokes. That method is best left to the Soviets, as evidenced by a 1918 article in one of their newspapers:

It is not necessary during the interrogation to look for evidence proving that the accused opposed the Soviets by word or action. The first question you should ask him is what class does he belong to, what is his origin, his education and his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused.

Trump, despite his bluster, has made no real attempts to muzzle the “fake news media,” but he is cheering on this lawsuit. Now it looks like the Post‘s hatred of the president and his supporters could lead to disaster to the tune of $250 million. Either way, this has the potential to be the biggest court case of the Trump era.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.

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90 Responses to The Covington Catholic Kids Take the Gloves Off

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  1. CrossTieWalker says:

    I’ve lost almost all respect for the WaPost but what kind of example is this for Christians? Wouldn’t reaching out to Jeff Bezos & others & offering forgiveness be more appropriate & offer an opportunity for a real change of hearts?

    I’m not naïve, but I truly believe in the power of charity, peace & forgiveness. That’s an integral part of being a Christian & it teaches a transforming lesson that’s not forgotten.
    —-> The forbearance heretofore shown is coming to an end. The time for repentance has passed. The sinners have shown no willingness in the least to stop sinning. Lessons, at long last, must now be taught. For everyone’s sake.

  2. EngineerScotty says:

    I doubt this case gets far beyond the pleading stage. There are only a few causes of action (libel being the big one, invasion of privacy being another) that can pierce the First Amendment rights of the Washington Post, and none of them are AFAICT alleged in the lawsuit. “The paper is biased in its coverage and is being mean to the plaintiff and has damaged his reputation” is not a legitimate cause of action under US First Amendment jurisprudence. Libel means a specific thing, I can’t think of anything published by the Post on the subject that would meet the standard for libel (even if Sandmann is not considered a “public person”), and libel is not alleged in the complaint.

    Now if this is intended as a full-frontal action to essentially not only reverse Sullivan but to erode freedom of the press generally, that would concern me–and Clarence Thomas’s recent mutterings on the subject are of some concern. But would you really want FOX or Daily Caller or any number of conservative media publications, some of which lie through their teeth on a regular basis, subject to a “fairness in coverage” standard?

    My suspicion, though, is that this is not that–this is just using the courts for political posturing. When this gets thrown out for failing to state a claim, the usual suspects will whine about a biased media and biased courts, and life will go on.

  3. Steve S. says:

    There’s an interesting (if long) article on Counterpunch.org by Bill Martin titled “Fourth Hypothesis”. In it, he warns fellow liberals that the attitude that winning *by any means*, such as the slander of the Covington kids, is exactly what is going to get President Trump re-elected in 2020.

    I read Counterpunch and TAC for the same reason: to read sane explanations of liberal and conservative perspectives.

  4. letty bromenschenkel says:

    Surprise radical liberal hate machine
    you all crossed the line.
    on the streets is the story from
    we the fed up good n decent US citizens
    the crazy left is losing fast

  5. Taek Kenn says:

    I think WAPO will hang their hat on that “smirk”. I want to listen to the court case where the 2 sides discuss what is a “smirk” of a 16 year old teenager.
    I will be smirking the whole time

  6. Probably not says:

    $250 million is toilet paper to Jeff Bezos. This won’t sink ’em.

  7. cka2nd says:

    ICommentedOnTAC says: “It’s hard not to notice that this obsession with media accuracy and fairness only flows in one direction. It’s always conservatives screaming about the ‘mainstream’ media,”

    I take it you’ve never heard of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and it’s newsletter, Extra!, or Media Matters for America, or Eric Alterman, the media columnist for The Nation. FAIR was founded in 1986, and Alterman published “Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy” in 1992. You might also look up Norman Solomon, Jeff Cohen and the Institute for Public Accuracy (wow, that’s a new one even on me) regarding progressive and liberal media criticism.

  8. barbara s says:

    I no longer read or listen to the liberal press.
    Much prefer Rush Limbaugh. Nor do I listen to Pelosi
    or Schumer.
    Rather, I pray for the president to make USA great again.

  9. The Other Sands says:

    This lawsuit will be dismissed outright and is a waste of everyone’s time, as is your post. The suit is hokey showmanship aimed at the Gateway Pundit set. Seems to have worked on you.

  10. William L Steck says:

    CrossTieWalker

    Galatians 6:7 reminds us that what someone plants, they also harvest. So while forgiveness is possible with repentance, the WaPo is still scripturally on the hook.

  11. john says:

    It shouldn’t stop with this one lawsuit. All those involved and the school itself should bring a lawsuit. Take down the Post and maybe it will be a lesson to other propaganda journals. Perhaps Bill Maher should be in the dock as well. Both the student and his family were subject to death threats and the school and its administrators were the victims of the lies as well.

  12. Bill Kurtz says:

    I understand that Sandman does not meet the “public figure” standard established in NYT vs. Sullivan, but merely wished to criticize the obvious motivation of the suit, to get a large enough judgment to put the Post out of business, or at least cripple it economically. That was Sullivan’s motive in the original case.
    If this case is seriously pursued, perhaps the case is similar to the Hulk Hogan case vs. Gawker, where the plaintiff was able to put the offending entity out of business.
    Beyond the cautions noted by other commenters, here’s another related one: Do we want a British-style Official Secrets Law? That’s what many who dislike the Sullivan standard would really like.

  13. dan levin says:

    The plaintiffs won the publicity war ($250mm claim! woohoo) but there is very little chance that they have a real cause of action for libel. So if it gets past summary judgment I’ll be surprised. I doubt that any money changes hands unless it’s a cost of defense type settlement.

  14. RO says:

    I do agree with concerns about the ambulance-chasing aspect of this. You can be sure, unless this is a pro bono effort by the lawyers, that they will get the lion’s share of any award or settlement (I suspect the latter would be more likely for a more “reasonable” million or 2). However, thinking about the longer term prospects for Nick Sandmann, I seriously doubt now that he could get into any mainstream college without suffering endless harassment by the rabid SJW’s that have just about taken over most such institutions. This is a realistic outcome for which he should get some sort of compensation from the main instigators of his character assassination.

    He will very possibly need to pay his own way to a more exlicitly conservative school, although there are a fair number of such with generous endowments to help him along. Still, his choices are greatly reduced, if he wants to get even a technical degree (supposedly “above” politics), as most of the leading universities with those offerings (MIT, CalTech, etc) are rather subservient to the SJW thugs.

    As long as the proAGgressives are the predominant movers and shakers of the cultural “elite”, his life, in many aspects, will be seriously constrained by the blatantly false notoriety heaped on him by the WaPo, and many others of their ilk, unless he wants to become a culture warrior for the other side. However, that requires quite a thick hide and a lot of determination these days. I bailed out of that notion 40 years ago when I became so depressed about being on the losing side in college then, that I went low profile with a 2-year IT degree, and kept mostly to that techie stuff, while just reading the likes of National Review, and voting Republican (or for the occasional conservative Democrat that is about gone now). I can hardly imagine what the pressure would like nowadays for introverts such as I have been.

    This kid, and any others named/shamed, do deserve some sort of monetary offset (not a quarter billion, though) to prevail in getting though a future that has been suddenly seriously clouded by this incident.

  15. sound awake says:

    america wont get better until the mainstream media does
    plain and simple
    this is an opportunity to make the media take its medicine
    the worse the illness the more bitter the pill

  16. Bob Koyak says:

    Jeff Bezos should just sign over the WaPo to Sandmann and be done with it. He’s not the publisher type and doesn’t seem much enchanted with journalism anyway. To him the $250 million he paid for the toy would be about as consequential as the dead skin cells that he sloughs off when he showers. His newfound interests have sent him on other adventures. How about it, Jeff?

  17. hoodaticus says:

    Jack Shifflett,

    Trayvon Martin died in the act of attempted murder. I saw his injuries, and I’ve had my head bashed in by a psychopath just like Zimmermann experienced. It was a matter of life and death. The only reason this isn’t yet another story of a black-on-Hispanic killing is because Zimmermann had a gun.

    You can be forgiven for not knowing the facts of the case as you were probably relying on the Washington Post.

  18. I think a libel action is entirely appropriate. But the way this one has been filed leaves me absolutely cold. The legal issue is not whether the Post or anyone else does or does not have an “anti-Trump agenda.” It is whether unfounded accusations that turned out to be lies were maliciously published as News, with reckless disregard for the truth. As far as I’m concerned Sandmann has shot himself in the foot, or possibly in the abdomen, and allowed a perfectly sound grievance to become itself a political football. He probably had to sell his soul to get free legal help offered by interested parties.

  19. mrscracker says:

    rhcrest,
    What I suggest is taken from what Our Lord suggested about loving our enemies. If that’s naive, so be it. I personally believe forgiveness is powerful and transforming.
    I’m weary of the media outrage industry and think we should get back to the basics. It’s difficult to find any publication or website these days that doesn’t resemble a tabloid.

  20. Beautiful news. says:

    “Wouldn’t reaching out to Jeff Bezos & others & offering forgiveness be more appropriate & offer an opportunity for a real change of hearts?”

    What the-?

    It Is A Newspaper.

  21. WAYNE HANSEN says:

    It may be a shock to some of you and I am one of the individuals pushing for the suit and I am pushing for an offshoot that goes after accountability and responsibility of media. Another part of libel and slander is proving malicious intent to harm…I am full aware of the exact source and it is easily proven that the source was not vetted. Failure to vet the source for fear of it not checking out and a desire to harm these kids….is a malicious and therefore libelous intent….I await listening to each on how they reasonably determined they were reporting facts. Grab the popcorn.

  22. WAYNE HANSEN says:

    Also to answer some of the above, various strategy discussions going on. Kentucky AG reviewing possible felony threats by reporters. Over 30 or 40 lawsuits being considered just on behalf of one student and then consideration to combine or other students bring their own. The school itself may be a defendant as it moved to condemn based on the media reports right away. Hopefully the Bishop is going to lose his job. But also other individuals may be directly impacted to include various celebrities that actually threatened or solicited harm on these kids…so in short…this is just begun.

  23. Rick Steven D. says:

    “Trump, despite his bluster, has made no real attempt to muzzle the ‘fake news media’…”

    Well, last time I checked, Trump threatened to revoke NBC’s license. Completely clear, unambiguous grounds for impeachment right there, since the president is sworn to uphold The Constitution and The First Amendment. Not his own corrupt, sorry a-s.

  24. Kenneth Almquist says:

    @EngineerScotty:

    Paragraph 112 of the complaint asserts that, “the Post published…false and defamatory articles of and concerning Nicholas.” So a cause of action is stated: libel.

    @Siarlys Jenkins:

    I feel similarly. Normally, if you want redress for libel, you include all of the responsible parties as defendants. For example, Sandmann alleges that a joint statement issued by the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School was libelous. So one would expect the defendants in this lawsuit to include those responsible for writing the statement (the diocese and the school), and those who played a major role in distributing the statement, which probably includes a number of major news organizations. The reason for this is that any particular individual associated with the writing or distribution of this statement can argue that others are at fault. As long as you have a comprehensive list of defendants, all you have to do is to convince the jury of the amount of damage caused by the statement, and then let the defendants argue about how that sum should be divided among them.

    In other words, Sandmann may have a legitimate libel claim, but his lawyers seem more interested in adding fuel to Trump’s war against the Washington Post than in obtaining justice for their client.

  25. Rick Steven D. says:

    Mrs. Cracker,

    I have read your comments for some time now. You are not in the least bit naïve. From your past remarks, anyone could see that your faith is deep, genuine, and probably the result of a close reading of Scripture. Forgiveness IS powerful and transforming, as you so eloquently put it. God Bless you for your deep humility. I believe it is Christ-like. As a matter of fact, I wish I had read your call for forgiveness before I pitched my usual grenade into the proceedings. Maybe it wouldn’t have stopped me, but that is my own state of depravity. Please keep taking the high road. We need it right now, and always…

  26. madmarc says:

    A hellish flood of lawsuits against all media and individuals who misrepresented this story, or who threatened any of the family members with death or otherwise, is necessary to stem the flood. Yanking your twits or FB comments shouldn’t cut it either. Loss of money or the threat of losing it is the only thing that motivates people anymore, not morality or shame or even having to apologize.These virtues are dead among the left, so hit them in the pocket book. How long will it take before Federal offices start prosecuting for treason? How many death threats against the president and his family have been passed over up to now? They should all be in jail.

  27. WorkingClass says:

    Nothing will come of this lawsuit. Any effective action against the Washington Post will be extralegal. The incident itself however will help the re-election of President Trump.

  28. kaygee says:

    cash grab, pure and simple.

  29. Will Thompson says:

    I am no expert, but I expect the Washington Post to successfully defend this based on the law. However, trying to explain promoting the misleading short video and false narrative while the left was threatening to murder these boys will not help them in the court of public opinion.

  30. Andrew says:

    Sullivan is WRONG and SHOULD be overturned. As real textualists like Scalia and Thomas have always recognized. Sorry to the whiny liberals who can’t handle that, but it’s nothing new, conservatives wanting to reverse Sullivan. It was a stupid decision messing up our libel law, motivated merely by PC left-wing Justices not wanting to be on the wrong side of a civil rights case.

    I don’t care what his chances are; best of luck, Sandmann.

  31. JohnT says:

    Let’s see now. A group of “Christian” (Christian in the TAC sense, that is) kids proudly wearing hats hawked by a pathological liar, mobster, misogynist, draft dodger using our military for solely political gain and disciple of Roy Cohn are upset because their blatant hypocrisy was called out. Well, sure I can see why the “Christians” posting hear are proud of them.

  32. Mark Thomason says:

    Two things:

    First, Justice Thomas just spoke out, suggesting further consideration of the actual malice standard for defamation against the news media. This case presents that.

    Second, this case is close enough to the line that it might appeal to more justices. It is blatant disregard of professional standards in service of a known agenda. Conscious disregard of truth for a purpose is malice.

    They could be very close to the line that Thomas wants to reconsider.

  33. Trayvon Martin died in the act of attempted murder.

    Not so. I don’t read the NY Times or the W. Post, but I did watch the entire video of Zimmerman in a police care retracing his steps and describing to the officers what happened. He was stalking Martin without cause, and Martin had every reason to be afraid for his life and/or safety.

    For Zimmerman to claim “self defense” is a bit like, if I walk up to someone who is minding their own business, punch them in the face, and then, to my surprise, they succeed at throwing me to the ground and sitting on my chest. I don’t get to pull a gun, shoot him, and claim self-defense, because I initiated the fight.

    As for Sullivan, without it, there is no First Amendment at all. We can’t overrule Sullivan without also accepting that John Peter Zenger was guilty of libel when he printed truthful statements about the royal governor of New York.

  34. Brian Lane Herder says:

    Some people don’t seem to know much about the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects political speech from criminal prosecution by the government. It offers no protection to private persons or companies from civil damages claimed by another private person or company.

  35. sjay says:

    The complaint contains nothing of substance and won’t get anywhere. The attorney tried getting money out of the Atlanta Journal Constitution on behalf of Richard Jewell with a better set of facts but lost on all counts when the AJC stood up to him.

    The parties who are really liable for actionable defamation are the thousands of social media outlets and users who really did meet the actual malice standard.

  36. mrscracker says:

    Rick Steven D.,
    Thank you so much for your comments. That was very kind & it brightened my Sunday considerably.
    You know it’s funny because after seeing your comments yesterday I went to church & the Gospel reading for Mass was actually this:

    “Gospel Lk 6:27-38

    Jesus said to his disciples:
    “To you who hear I say,
    love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
    bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…”

    I have dear friends who are conservative Mennonites & they would never under any circumstance file a suit. Their lives of serving Christ in simplicity, peace & charity have a powerful effect on their community.
    I personally believe situations can arise where litigation may be appropriate if it serves a greater good, but I don’t think it should ever be a Christian’s first response. More like a last resort.
    You have a blessed day ahead & thank you again.
    🙂

  37. Rick Steven D. says:

    Mrs. Cracker,

    You are extremely welcome. Much deserved. God bless.

  38. HIstoria says:

    If only they had not been wearing MAGA hats…

    First, they made them stand on the crowd and drew attention to themselves. And immediately politicized an episode of weirdness such as tend to happen when a lot of people gather together

    There is no sanity check for people who want to join a march or demonstation. They have to bring no proof whatsoever of good judgement. They only have to bring their warm bodies. So, expect weirdness and give it a wide berth. You are no psychiatrist so do not address their delusions

    Maybe I am too old, but I remember, back in the seventies when there was a demonstration by Iranian opponents of the current regime, meeing a counter demonstration of Iranian supporters, and in the middle show up the Hare Krishnas with their tambourines. The only comment the police made “the only thing missing were the elephants and the clowns”

    I hope that in the next demonstration they attend they show more savvy than they did the last time

  39. Ary Avnet says:

    I read the Complaint and from a legal perspective, proving damages in the amount of $50,000,000 will be challenging. I see wrongful death suits settle for around $2 million dollars, some much less. Not sure how you prove damage to your reputation in that amount before establishing that that your reputation had that much value.

  40. EngineerScotty says:


    Paragraph 112 of the complaint asserts that, “the Post published…false and defamatory articles of and concerning Nicholas.” So a cause of action is stated: libel.

    Except the alleged statements pretty much all concern matters of opinion, or are the Post reporting on the statements of others.

    Paragraphs 112-117 complain about the “gist” of the Post‘s reporting. “Gist” does not cut it in a libel suit. Specific defamatory statements need to be set forth.

    Paragraph 118 lists a whole bunch of allegedly defamatory statements, most of which don’t concern Sandmann at all, or state Phillip’s account of the incident. Reporting the account of an eyewitness to an incident, even if such were to be shown to be a pack of lies, doesn’t give rise to a claim of libel against the publisher.

    Paragraphs 120-121 basically accuse the Post of reporting on the statements of the Diocese of Covington concerning the incident. Even if those statements were defamatory (and given that the Diocese of Covington certainly enjoys the First Amendment right to discipline or criticize its congregants as it wishes, this would be unlikely), the Post accurately reporting this would not be.

    Paragraphs 123-129 are more gist.

    130-136 are more reporting on the words of others.

    137-141: Still more “gist”.

    And so forth for the rest of the complaint.

    Essentially, the complaint doesn’t allege one specific derogatory claim of fact the Post has made concerning Sandmann, and in two instances attempt to hold it responsible for accurately reporting on the (properly attributed) statements and opinions of third parties.

    In other words, there isn’t really a cause of action here. I don’t see anywhere in the complaint that a claim that would meet the criteria for a libel charge is alleged–it’s either hearsay, or things that are matters of opinion.

    The Post is a professionally-run newspaper, with many editors and such quite familiar with libel law, and how to avoid claims of libel in their reporting. And the lawsuit fails utterly to state even one such claim that isn’t likely to be tossed in the early stages of the lawsuit. If the judge is nice to Sandmann, he and his lawyers may be given an opportunity to amend their claim to include an actual false and defamatory statement uttered by the Post, but simply because coverage of a subject is unflattering doesn’t make it actionable.

    Again, the First Amendment generally protects the news media, and rightfully so.

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