The day after the viral encounter between Covington Catholic students and Nathan Phillips, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted that the elderly Native American man “endured hateful taunts with dignity and strength.”
She never retracted the tweet nor apologized publicly to the boys. Now the Massachusetts Democrat faces a defamation lawsuit filed by eight unidentified Covington Catholic students against a dozen blue-check lawmakers, journalists and celebrities accused of fueling a “social media nightmare.”
The 12 defendants “used their large social media platforms, perceived higher credibility and public followings to lie and libel minors they never met, based on an event they never witnessed,” according to the complaint filed Thursday in Kenton County Circuit Court in Kentucky.
Another Covington student, Nicholas Sandmann, has already sued three media outlets — The Washington Post, CNN and NBCUniversal — over their coverage of the Jan. 18 episode, but the latest complaint differs in several respects.
None of the other Covington boys caught on video was singled out in the media coverage like Nicholas was, although the lawsuit said they have received hate mail and death threats.
The Sandmann family has sued three media outlets, seeking $250 million from the Washington Post and $275 million each from CNN and NBCUniversal, while the complaint against the 12 individuals is less ambitious.
The lawsuit asks for no more than $15,000 and no less than $50,000 per defendant for each of the eight plaintiffs. That would bring the total to $4.8 million if all 12 defendants were ordered to pay the maximum award to all eight students.
“No individual plaintiff seeks damages from any defendant in excess of the cost of a four-year tuition at the University of Kentucky,” said the lawsuit. “Plaintiffs file this complaint for neither fame nor fortune; they bring this suit to protect future families from experiencing the nightmare the defendants caused these kids to experience.”
Defamation lawsuits are notoriously difficult to win. A federal judge last week dismissed the lawsuit against The Post, although attorneys for the Sandmann family have said they will appeal.
In addition to Ms. Warren, the defendants are:
1. Rep. Deb Haaland, New Mexico Democrat;
2. Ana Navarro, CNN contributor;
3. Shaun King, activist and columnist;
4. Adam Edelen, former Kentucky auditor of public accounts;
5. Maggie Haberman, New York Times reporter;
6. Reza Aslan, professor and author;
7. Kathy Griffin, comedian;
8. Matthew Dowd, ABC News political analyst;
9. Kevin Kruse, professor and author;
10. Clara Jeffrey, editor-in-chief, Mother Jones;
11. Jodi Jacobson, editor-in-chief, Rewire.News.
The Washington Times has reached out to the defendants for comment.
“Ms. Haberman has not yet been served with this complaint,” The New York Times said in an email. “The lawsuit is entirely without merit and we will vigorously defend it if necessary.”
A group of Covington students were accused on social media of harassing Mr. Phillips based on initial video clips, but lengthier footage showed the longtime activist waded into their cheer circle as he sang and beat a drum.
Mr. Phillips later said he was afraid of the boys, some of whom wore Make America Great Again caps, and that they blocked his path, but the lawsuit said that he “walked past clear pathways to the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.”
“The Covington Boys did not move toward Phillips or otherwise actively approach or surround Phillips, block Phillips, or ever chant ‘build the wall’ at Phillips,” said the complaint.
In her tweet, Ms. Warren said, “Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips endured hateful taunts with dignity and strength, then urged us all to do better.”
She posted a video by Splinter featuring comments by Mr. Phillips, who served during the Vietnam War but was not deployed to Vietnam, accusing the boys of chanting, “Build that wall.”
All 12 plaintiffs were asked “repeatedly” to “retract, correct or delete their offending and defamatory statements, but each refused,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit was filed by attorneys Robert Barnes of Los Angeles and Kevin L. Murphy of Murphy Landen Jones in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.