Thomas Gallatin / February 20, 2019

Libel: Covington Boys and a SCOTUS Review

Sandmann files suit against WaPo for libel, while Justice Thomas suggests revisiting a libel ruling.

The family of Covington Catholic School student Nicholas Sandmann is suing The Washington Post to the tune of $250 million for its libelous and McCarthy-like vilification of Sandmann and his fellow Covington classmates as racist bullies in its reporting on the infamous incident with Native American activist and serial liar Nathan Phillips. The suit pointedly calls out the Post’s biased motive: “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 of the President.” In other words, Sandmann’s team is alleging not just bad journalism on the part of the Post but a willful disregard for the truth in order to promote a biased narrative.

According to Sandmann’s legal team, the libel suit was raised against the Post because it “was one of the first, if not the first, mainstream media outlet to expand coverage of the January 18 incident from social media to mainstream media.”

It’s unlikely that Sandmann will see all $250 million, though he has a strong case, especially given the fact that prior to this media-created fiasco, he was simply a high-school kid minding his own business. He was not a public figure, and therefore the standard for proving that the Post engaged in libelous reporting does not require evidence of “actual malice” on the part of the Post, only a false statement of fact made negligently. Given this standard, we’re betting the Post negotiates some sort of settlement before this lawsuit ever reaches a courtroom.

Speaking of the courts and libel, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made headlines Tuesday when he suggested that the Court should revisit the 1964 ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The landmark First Amendment case effectively made it significantly more difficult for public figures to win libel suits.

Thomas criticized the ruling and subsequent ones as “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.” He explained, “If the Constitution does not require public figures to satisfy an actual-malice standard in state-law defamation suits, then neither should we.” Thomas further noted, “The constitutional libel rules adopted by this Court in New York Times and its progeny broke sharply from the common law of libel, and there are sound reasons to question whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments displaced this body of common law.”

Leftmedia outlets may cringe that Thomas wants to “end the First Amendment as we know it,” but in this era of an activist, propagandist media perpetuating hate-crime hoaxes and other fake news galore, it’s worth pondering how to rein in the gross abuse of the First Amendment.

Updated ¾: The Washington Post quietly updated its original story with an editor’s note that amounted to slight whoops. As The Daily Wire summed it up, “The note, posted Friday evening, does not apologize for the role the Post’s biased ‘journalism’ played in smearing Covington Catholic teenagers and getting them death threats, but does say subsequent reporting contradicted or failed ‘to confirm accounts provided’ in the initial story.” Furthermore, “There was no apology to the students who were smeared as racist bullies, when, in fact, these students were the victims of racist bullying by Black Hebrew Israelites and intimidation from Phillips and his activist friends who walked into the group of teenagers and began banging a drum just inches from Sandmann’s face as he politely smiled.”

Sandmann’s lawyers say that ain’t good enough.

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