Judge dismisses MAGA hat teenager's lawsuit against The Washington Post

The MAGA hat-wearing teenager made infamous by a viral video had his lawsuit against The Washington Post dismissed

By Matthew Rozsa
Published July 28, 2019 2:00PM (EDT)
High school student Nick Sandmann and Native American elder Nathan Phillips (YouTube/Washington Post)
High school student Nick Sandmann and Native American elder Nathan Phillips (YouTube/Washington Post)

Nicholas Sandmann, a Kentucky teenager who became infamous after a viral video showed him engaged in a confrontation with a Native American activist named Nathan Phillips, has suffered a legal setback after a judge dismissed his family's $250 million lawsuit against The Washington Post.

"As the Court explained at the oral argument on this motion, in modern libel law there are many affirmative defenses, even for claims based on defamatory statements," Judge William O. Bertelsman explained in his ruling. "These defenses are calculated to protect defendants, especially the press, from strict liability."

He added, "The defense that a statement of opinion is not actionable protects freedom of speech and the press guaranteed by the First Amendment."

Although he acknowledged that Sandmann was sincere when he argued that his supposed confrontation with Phillips was actually an attempt "to calm the situation and not to impede or block anyone," Bertelsman added that the Post was merely reflecting the opinions conveyed by Phillips.

"He concluded that he was being 'blocked' and not allowed to 'retreat.' He passed these conclusions on to The Post. They may have been erroneous, but, as discussed above, they are opinion protected by the First Amendment. And The Post is not liable for publishing these opinions, for the reasons discussed in this Opinion," Bertelsman wrote.

Washington Post director of communications Shani George hailed the decision in a statement, declaring that "from our first story on this incident to our last, we sought to report fairly and accurately the facts that could be established from available evidence, the perspectives of all of the participants, and the comments of the responsible church and school officials. We are pleased that the case has been dismissed," according to CBS News.

Sandmann's attorneys announced on Friday that he would appeal the decision. "I believe fighting for justice for my son and family is of vital national importance. If what was done to Nicholas is not legally actionable, then no one is safe," father Ted Sandmann said in a statement.

During an interview with NBC News in January about the confrontation, Sandmann expressed some regret over chanting back at the protesters in Washington.

"In hindsight, I wish we had just found another spot to wait for our buses, but at the time, being positive seemed better than letting them slander us with all these things. So I wish we could have walked away," Sandmann told Savannah Guthrie.

Later Guthrie asked him about the fact that he was wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat.

"Do you think if you weren’t wearing that hat, this might not have happened or it might have been different?" Guthrie asked Sandmann.

"That’s possible, but I would have to assume what Mr. Phillips was thinking and I’d rather let him speak for why he came up to us," Sandmann replied.

Sandmann was also asked about the controversial smirk on his face as he confronted Phillips.

"What do you think that looks like?" Guthrie asked Sandmann.

He replied, "I see it as a smile saying that, this is the best you’re going to get out of me. You get any further reaction of aggression. And I’m willing to stand here as long as you want to hit this drum in my face."

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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