A federal judge in Kentucky has reopened the $250 million defamation case filed by a Covington Catholic student against The Washington Post after dismissing it in July, allowing the lawsuit to proceed but narrowing its focus.
U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman agreed to permit discovery on three of 33 allegedly libelous statements in The Post’s coverage of the Jan. 18 incident pertaining to teenager Nicholas Sandmann. The Post has insisted that its reporting was fair and accurate.
All three flagged statements from the newspaper’s coverage refer to Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips being blocked or impeded by Nicholas, a student at Covington Catholic High School, during their viral encounter at the Lincoln Memorial stairs.
“The Court will adhere to its previous rulings as they pertain to these statements except Statements 10, 11, and 33, to the extent that these three statements state that plaintiff ‘blocked’ Nathan Phillips and ‘would not allow him to retreat,’” Judge Bertelsman said in his Monday order.
“Suffice to say that the Court has given this matter careful review and concludes that ‘justice requires’ that discovery be had regarding these statements and their context. The Court will then consider them anew on summary judgment,” he said.
Attorney Todd V. McMurtry, who represents the Sandmann family with attorney L. Lin Wood, called the judge’s order a “huge victory.”
“The Sandmann family and our legal team are grateful that Judge Bertelsman has allowed the case to proceed,” Mr. McMurtry said in an email. “The Court’s ruling preserves the heart of the Nicholas Sandmann’s claims. We can consider this a huge victory and look forward to initiating discovery against the Washington Post.”
The Sandmann attorneys have also filed separate $275 million defamation lawsuits against CNN and NBCUniversal for their coverage of the incident. Both media organizations have also denied defaming the Covington teen and filed motions to dismiss.
Nicholas was portrayed initially on social media as harassing and blocking Mr. Phillips until lengthier video showed the older man approaching the group of Covington Catholic boys and wading into their cheer circle as they waited for their bus to return to Kentucky.
Some of those who accused Nicholas of bullying and “smirking” at Mr. Phillips later apologized. The Diocese of Covington in Covington, Kentucky, issued an apology to the boys after initially saying that they would be subject to discipline, including expulsion.
The three statements identified by the court were:
A quote in three articles from Mr. Phillips saying that Nicholas “just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat,” a statement attributed to Mr. Phillips saying that the teen “was blocking him from moving,” and a tweet using the quote from Mr. Phillips saying that Nicholas “just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
In his July 26 dismissal, Judge Bertelsman said that the older man had a First Amendment right to “offer his subjective point of view, and the Post had a right to report it.”
A spokesperson for The Washington Post declined to comment.
“Nicholas Sandmann deserves his day in court against WaPo. Now he will get it,” Mr. Wood tweeted.