Nick Sandmann wouldn't be the first to win a libel suit against the Washington Post
Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann has just filed a libel suit against the Washington Post. Our court system is built around precedent, so it is important to search for prior cases with relevance to the current one. Though it does not appear in his filing, it might help Mr. Sandmann to have his attorneys look up a prior case that resulted in a jury finding that the Post had libeled a public figure, Tavoulareas v. Washington Post. The jury verdict was overridden by the trial judge and then remanded to the court on appeal. You can read the trial court decision and the appeal decision, Case No. 83-1604. In the decision of the appeals court, senior circuit judge McKinnon wrote:
Plaintiffs William and Peter Tavoulareas brought suit against The Washington Post ("Post") and several other defendants for libel and against defendant Piro, a source for the story, for slander and its foreseeable republication. The Tavoulareases alleged that they were defamed by articles in the Post which stated, among other things, that William Tavoulareas, as President and Chief Executive Officer of Mobil Oil Corporation ("Mobil"), had used his influence to "set up" his son Peter in the shipping business, and then had diverted some of Mobil's shipping business to him. The basic theme of the article was that William Tavoulareas had misused his position and corporate assets to benefit his son. The case was submitted to the jury, which was instructed, in accordance with standards constitutionally required for public figures, that defendants could be held liable only if they published false matter with "actual malice" — i.e., with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. The jury returned verdicts for the plaintiffs. The trial judge then ruled on motion that the evidence was insufficient to support such a verdict and entered judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("n.o.v.") for the defendants. ... After a careful and independent review of the entire record in the case, we conclude that the evidence adduced by the plaintiffs was sufficient to "establish [ ] actual malice with convincing clarity" ... and accordingly reverse the grant of the judgments n.o.v. as to the Post defendants and defendant Piro, and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings. We affirm the trial court's judgment n.o.v. with respect to defendant Golden because of his lack of responsibility for the publication.
Many citizens, not least both President Trump and Lara Logan, lament the declining editorial standards of the legacy press. Even the former executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abrahamson, has written a new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts with an insider's look at the editorial process.
A lot has changed in the newspaper business since 1983. The decline in editorial judgment and standards is one of the very things that might incline a young, idealistic man to wear a Make America Great Again hat. He might believe that then Post management imposed a much stricter standard upon its editors and correspondents.
In his book, Fighting Back, available from third-party resellers on Amazon, William Tavoulareas quoted a section from the Washington Post Guidelines on Journalistic Ethics: Standards and Ethics by Benjamin C. Bradlee. Mr. Bradlee is such an icon in media circles that it took Tom Hanks to play him in the recent film The Post.
It is noteworthy that both Mr. Tavoulareas and his son, Peter, were not very sympathetic to a profession inclined to "afflict the comfortable." He was the president of Mobil Oil, a favorite target of politicians. Peter was an oil tanker shipping magnate, a veritable up-and-coming Aristotle Onassis. (Full disclosure: I was slightly acquainted with the family from high school. Peter and I rode the same school bus.)
The threat to the Washington Post is clear. If the president of Mobil Oil could tie the paper in knots in a libel trial, imagine what a 16-year-old schoolboy could do. He might even order a copy of The Washington Post Deskbook on Style. Unlike Jim Acosta, the Post cannot claim ignorance of the ground rules of good journalism.