A young Kentucky teen will get a second chance to prove that The Washington Post defamed him over an incident at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. last January.
You may recall the story of Nicholas Sandmann, the 16-year-old teen from Covington High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, who, while attending the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. with his classmates, found himself face-to-face with a Native American protester who confronted him while beating a drum in his face.
The Washington Post and other media outlets raced to condemn Sandmann for what an edited video clip purportedly showed was a mocking and racist “smirk” on his face while wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat. Even his own school back in Kentucky jumped to conclusions and initially issued a statement condemning Sandmann and promised punishment for his actions.
As the full, unedited video surfaced following initial news reports, it became clear that the Native American, Nathan Phillips, approached Sandmann and his classmates while they were waiting for a bus. It turned out that Sandmann and his classmates were receiving verbal abuse, including racist and homophobic slurs, from other nearby protesters when Phillips approached him with his drum, in what looked like a clear attempt to stir up some kind of “incident” with the MAGA-hat wearing Sandmann.
It was clear from the full video that Sandmann and his friends were not the instigators, and Sandmann simply stood his ground and smiled at Phillips as he continued to bang his drum. Sandmann said nothing, and his class was only guilty of chanting some patriotic slogans as they waited for their bus and tried to drown out the nearby protesters. Phillips later told The Washington Post that Sandmann had blocked him and “would not allow him to retreat.” This was dutifully reported by the Post along with a short, edited video of the incident. After a new video surfaced with longer, unedited content, the Post began walking back its initial story.
But by the time the full video surfaced, the damage to Sandmann’s reputation done by the Post, CNN, NBC and others in their initial, irresponsible reporting had been done. Sandmann eventually retained attorneys and sued various news outlets and individuals who had defamed him, including the Post.
The lawsuit against The Washington Post was dismissed in July. When Sandmann’s attorneys filed an Amended Complaint that more fully addressed the factual basis for some of the statements alleged to be defamatory, the judge reconsidered and reopened at least a part of the case. Sandmann, through his attorneys, will now be allowed to conduct discovery into what the Post knew at the time it printed the initial story. What they learn from that discovery could show that the Post knew or should have known that it was publishing false statements concerning the incident that damaged Sandmann’s reputation.
Sandmann’s high-profile lawsuits request millions in dollars to compensate him for the damage to his reputation. Many outlets have already retracted their initial stories and apologized to the young man, now a senior at Covington High. That helps somewhat, but most people see and hear the damaging, blockbuster report several times and never see the one-time retraction. The lawsuits that Sandmann has filed will serve to continually remind the public that he was painted in a false light, and help to salvage what is left of his reputation.
And for the rest of us, perhaps we can learn a lesson from this story and not be so quick to rush to judgment over what we think someone said or did, before all the facts are in.