A federal judge ruled Thursday that Covington Catholic student Nicholas Sandmann‘s $275 million lawsuit against NBCUniversal may proceed on limited grounds, as he had with similar cases against The Washington Post and CNN.
U.S. District Court Judge William Bertelsman dismissed parts of the lawsuit while allowing discovery on allegations that the network’s coverage defamed the teen by reporting that he “blocked” Native American elder Nathan Phillips in a Jan. 18 encounter at the Lincoln Memorial.
“[T]he court finds that the statements that plaintiff ‘blocked’ Phillips or did not allow him to retreat, if false, meet the test of being libelous per se under the definition quoted above,” said Judge Bertelsman in his order.
Judge Bertelsman initially dismissed the $250 million lawsuit against the Washington Post, but in October, he allowed an amended complaint concerning three of the 33 allegedly libelous statements to go forward. All three pertained to reports that the teen had blocked Mr. Phillips.
“As predicted, today Judge Bertelsman entered an order allowing the Nicholas Sandmann case against NBCUniversal to proceed to discovery just as he had earlier ruled with respect to WaPo & CNN cases. Huge, huge win!” tweeted Sandmann attorney L. Lin Wood.
A group of boys from Covington Catholic High School in Covington, Kentucky, was initially accused of harassing Mr. Phillips based on video clips of the encounter that went viral, while lengthier footage showed that the older man approached the teens.
Under Kentucky law, a communication is considered defamatory if it brings a person into “public hatred, contempt or ridicule,” or causes the person to be “shunned or avoided,” according to the ruling.
The Sandmann complaint “alleges that this is exactly what occurred to the plaintiff,” the order said, and that at the pleading stage, “plaintiff is entitled to have all inferences drawn in his favor.”
Sandmann attorney Todd V. McMurtry said the judge’s order “identifies a clear path to liability for the media defendants.”
“If we prove Nathan Phillips lied, it is defamation per se,” Mr. McMurtry said. “Then, all we have to do is prove that the media negligently republished those defamatory statements.”
The lawsuit alleges that Nicholas was wrongfully depicted as the aggressor because he was white and wore a “Make America Great Again” ball cap, while the news outlets have defended their coverage of the incident as fair and accurate.