Why the Washington Post has got to be worried about the quarter-billion-dollar defamation lawsuit filed by Nick Sandmann and his parents
Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world and owner of the Washington Post, is about to encounter Kentucky justice, and I suspect he is not going to be happy with it. The parents of Nick Sandmann chose well in hiring renowned lawyer L. Lin Wood, who won over $5 million from NBC over its coverage of Richard Jewell during the Olympic Park bombing incident. Wood and associated counsel launched a lawsuit in federal court in Covington, Kentucky (the Eastern District of Kentucky, Northern Division). According to the Diocese of Covington, 18% of the area's population is Catholic. The Eastern District Court of Kentucky is within the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Cincinnati, generally regarded as the most conservative major metropolitan area in the United States.
From the WaPo's own article on the suit:
The suit alleges that The Post "targeted and bullied" 16-year-old Nicholas Sandmann in order to embarrass President Trump. Sandmann was one of a number of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky who were wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats during a trip to the Mall when they encountered Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist. ...
"In a span of three days in January of this year commencing on January 19, the Post engaged in a modern-day form of McCarthyism by competing with CNN and NBC, among others, to claim leadership of a mainstream and social media mob of bullies which attacked, vilified, and threatened Nicholas Sandmann, an innocent secondary school child," reads the complaint.
It added, "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."
Libel lawsuits are notoriously difficult for plaintiffs to win, but 16-year-old Nick Sandmann was not a public figure when the Post launched its allegedly defamatory coverage of his encounter with Nathan Phillips, which means that the standard is negligence, not actual malice.
Robert Stacy McCain comments:
The lawsuit mentions a crucial fact:
The Post rushed to lead the mainstream media to assassinate Nicholas' character and bully him, publishing their first article no later than 1:37 p.m. January 19. This story was not "hot" or "breaking news." To the extent the Post performed any investigation at all into what occurred, its unreasonable investigation did not take long, and contrary information did not stop it from publishing its first story in its Sunday newspaper the next day. One of the reporters on the story first retweeted the video approximately four hours before receiving credit for the Post's first article. In the intervening time, the Post apparently managed to track down and interview Phillips, write a story, and fan the flames of the social media mob into a mainstream media frenzy of false attacks and threats against Nicholas.
In other words, the Post did not merely report on an online controversy, but by retweeting the video, one of its reporters was actually part of the Twitter mob that incited the controversy. And the newspaper raced to publish an article before it had conducted sufficient reporting even to know the name of the student whose "menacing smirk" may cost the paper an enormous amount in attorneys' fees to defend this lawsuit.
Normally, I would not think the Post could actually lose this lawsuit. Libel law in the United States favors freedom of the press to such an extent that it is nearly impossible for a libel plaintiff to win. At least nine times out of 10, lawyers will advise against filing such a lawsuit. Yet the facts in this case are unusual and, perhaps, unprecedented. Editors at the Post decided to turn an Internet flame-war into an actual print-edition news story, and they did so with astonishing haste, repeating in print Phillips's claim that the Covington boys "suddenly swarmed around him[.]"
To my layman's ears, that haste sounds like negligence. Ultimately, it is a jury of Kentuckians that will decide the fate of the suit, and my strong suspicion is that there may well be an element of "flyover country revenge" in their hearts. Kentucky is one of those states that swells on the two coasts regard as inhabited by primitives with only a few teeth in the mouths. And here we have the snooty newspaper in the nation's capital (which has become the richest metro area in the country) and the richest man in the world, a Seatteite who has driven plenty of store-owners into bankruptcy, picking on a local boy.
Asking for the same amount that Bezos's personal company paid for the Post was genius. The lawsuit asks for compensatory damages (for income that may be lost by Nick) of $50 million, which is probably difficult to sustain. But punitive damages, intended to "teach 'em a lesson" and deter future misconduct, must be meaningful to the defendant, on the defendant's scale of money. If Bezos can afford a quarter-billion for the paper, he sure can afford $200 million for punitive damages.
The tort law industry of law firms suing for damages has traditionally been a major donor to the Democrats, and it generally goes after "deep pocket" defendants. But with the conversion of the biggest businesses (the tech oligarchies) and richest people in the United States into bastions of progressivism, the old alignment of forces is changing, and tools once wielded by the left become part of the armory of conservatives.
If I were the Post, I would settle for eight figures and a confidentiality agreement.