Judge dismisses Covington Catholic student's lawsuit against the Washington Post

FILE - This Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, file photo shows Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky. A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit by Nicholas Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School, accusing the Washington Post of falsely

A federal judge on Friday dismissed the Covington Catholic High School student's lawsuit accusing the Washington Post of falsely labeling him a racist following a viral encounter with a Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial.

Continue Reading Below

Nicholas Sandmann sued the newspaper for $250 million in February, alleging that it had engaged in "targeting and bullying" and modern "McCarthyism."

The actions of Sandmann and his classmates were intensely debated after video and images emerged of them wearing "Make America Great Again" hats near a Native American man playing a drum. PresidentTrump supported the lawsuit, posting to Twitter that "Covington student suing WAPO. Go get them Nick. Fake News!"

In his ruling, Federal judge William O. Bertelsman said there may have been "erroneous" opinions published by the Post, but they are protected by the First Amendment.

"Few principles of law are as well-established as the rule that statements of opinion are not actionable in libel actions," Bertelsman wrote in the 36-page opinion issued on Friday.

Sandmann's attorneys also threatened legal action against The Associated Press and other news organizations, including CNN and NBC.

Both Sandmann and the Native American man, Nathan Phillips, said they were trying to defuse tensions in the midst of both the anti-abortion March for Life, attended by Covington students, and the Indigenous Peoples March.

Video of the encounter showed Sandmann and Phillips face to face, with Sandmann staring and at times smiling at Phillips as he sang and played a drum.

In Sandmann's lawsuit against The Washington Post, his attorneys highlighted seven articles and three Twitter social media posts they considered defamatory to Sandmann.

"The Post ignored basic journalist standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump ... by impugning individuals perceived to be supporters," the complaint said.

The lawsuit alleged that the newspaper had "conveyed that (Sandmann) engaged in acts of racism by 'swarming' Phillips, 'blocking' his exit away from the students, and otherwise engaging in racist misconduct."

Judge Bertelsman said in the ruling that he accepted Sandmann's contention that "when he was standing motionless in the confrontation with Phillips, his intent was to calm the situation ..."

But he noted that Phillips asserted that he was being blocked from passing, and Phillips' opinion was reported by the newspaper.

"They may have been erroneous ... but they are opinion protected by The First Amendment," Bertelsman wrote.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.