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Covington student's $250 million defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post dismissed

Viral video fallout gets complicated

A federal judge dismissed the $250 million defamation lawsuit filed by high school student Nicholas Sandmann against The Washington Post Friday afternoon. The MAGA hat-wearing teen sued the newspaper after a video of him and Native American activist Nathan Philips went viral in January. 

According to court documents, Judge William O. Bertelsman ruled that seven Washington Post articles and three tweets about now 17-year-old Sandmann were protected by the First Amendment and deemed opinion. 

Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, was part of a group of anti-abortion teenagers who confronted Philips, a veteran, while he performed a Native American song on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

In the viral video, Sandmann could be seen wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat while smirking at the 64-year-old Philips as he beat a drum during the Indigenous People's rally. It received intense backlash online from both sides, and President Donald Trump tweeted his support of the students. 

"I am being called every name in the book, including a racist, and I will not stand for this mob-like character assassination," Sandmann said in a statement following the incident.

The suit accused The Post's coverage of being libelous, and called for the newspaper to pay $250 million in damages for "a series of false and defamatory print and online articles" about Sandmann. However, the judge said articles on Sandmann must be "more than annoying, offensive or embarrassing" to be considered defamation. 

"Few principles of law are as well-established as the rule that statements of opinion are not actionable in libel actions," Bertelsman wrote in court documents. Bertelsman ruled that The Post had the right to report on the story from Philips' perspective, and many of the statements Sandmann claimed were defamatory focused not on him, but on the group of students as a whole. 

"And while unfortunate, it is further irrelevant that Sandmann was scorned on social media," Bertelsman wrote.

"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," Washington Post director of communications Shani George said in a statement. "We are pleased that the case has been dismissed."

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

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