In Depth

Nick Sandmann: why MAGA teen is suing Washington Post for $250m

Newspaper accused of ‘modern-day form of McCarthyism’ over coverage of the US student’s stand-off with Native American protester

A high-school student whose videoed confrontation with a Native American man went viral has launched a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post. 

Nick Sandmann, 16, claims the newspaper targeted him in “a modern-day form of McCarthyism” through its coverage of the stand-off at a rally in Washington DC last month.

“In order to fully compensate Nicholas for his damages and to punish, deter, and teach the Post a lesson it will never forget, this action seeks money damages in excess of $250m [£190m] - the amount Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, paid in cash for the Post when his company, Nash Holdings, purchased the newspaper in 2013,” the complaint says.

What happened at the rally?

Sandmann, from Kentucky, was in the US capital with classmates to join an anti-abortion rally on 18 January when he was confronted by 64-year-old Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, who was taking part in the separate Indigenous Peoples March. 

 The Covington Catholic High School student was accused of mocking Phillips in the ensuing stand-off, which was caught on camera. The footage shows Sandmann wearing a hat emblazoned with Donald Trump’s campaign slogan Make American Great Again (MAGA) and silently grinning as Phillips bangs a drum and sings just inches away.

The video “set off a social media firestorm, with some people insisting the incident was racially motivated and instigated by the high-school students”, says the New York Post.

Phillips claimed in multiple media interviews that he “felt threatened” as the teenagers surrounded and mocked him.

What was the reaction to the incident?

Officials at the Catholic high school and even the Diocese of Covington were among those who initially condemned the boys’ actions.

However, after a fuller picture of the encounter emerged through other video clips - including one in which Sandmann appears to try to calm a fellow student - the diocese “commissioned an independent firm to interview the students and their chaperones, locate third-party witnesses, review social media posts and news articles, find any additional video of the stand-off and determine exactly what happened”, says The Washington Post.

It found that neither Sandmann nor other Covington students had behaved in an offensive manner.

But the report was criticised by some advocates of Native American communities who argued that it dismissed behaviour that was clearly inappropriate.

“Maybe they didn’t say overtly racist things, but the context of the incident needs to be analysed,” said Professor Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a descendant of Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington who teaches American Indian studies at California State University at San Marcos.

It “sidesteps problematic issues - such as the fact they were all wearing MAGA gear, which is, unfortunately, a visual cue”, Gilio-Whitaker told the newspaper. “We have a history of people in MAGA gear attacking other people.”

But Sandmann’s lawyer, Lin Wood, questioned the idea that wearing a MAGA cap amounts to a provocation.

“The MAGA cap that Nick was wearing provides no legal excuse or justification for the politically motivated accusers, rather it only confirms their bias and malice. Anyone who falsely attacked, disparaged, or threatened a minor because of the cap he was wearing should hang his or her head in shame and be held fully accountable in a court of law,” Wood said.

Why is Sandmann suing The Washington Post?

The lawsuit, brought by Sandmann’s parents Ted and Julie, claims the paper “engaged in a modern-day form of McCarthyism” and “ignored basic journalist standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump”.

The suit also claims that the newspaper “ignored the truth and falsely accused Nicholas of, among other things, ‘accost[ing]’ Phillips by ‘suddenly swarm[ing]’ him in a ‘threaten[ing]’ and ‘physically intimidat[ing]’ manner”.

Seven allegedly “false and defamatory” stories published by the Post are cited as evidence.

After filing the lawsuit, Wood warned on Twitter that “all members of the mainstream & social media mob of bullies who recklessly & viciously attacked Nick would be well-served to read it carefully”.

A spokesperson for the Post said: “We are reviewing a copy of the lawsuit and we plan to mount a vigorous defence.”

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