Yesterday, a judge on the Eastern District of Kentucky allowed limited discovery in the lawsuit of Covington Catholic high school student Nicholas Sandmann against the Washington Post for defamation over its reporting of events during last year's March for Life in Washington, DC. The judge had dismissed the case a few months ago but issued the new order on response to a motion for reconsideration:
U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman agreed to permit discovery on three of 33 allegedly libelous statements in The Post’s coverage of the Jan. 18 incident pertaining to teenager Nicholas Sandmann. The Post has insisted that its reporting was fair and accurate.
All three flagged statements from the newspaper’s coverage refer to Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips being blocked or impeded by Nicholas, a student at Covington Catholic High School, during their viral encounter at the Lincoln Memorial stairs.
“The Court will adhere to its previous rulings as they pertain to these statements except Statements 10, 11, and 33, to the extent that these three statements state that plaintiff ‘blocked’ Nathan Phillips and ‘would not allow him to retreat,’” Judge Bertelsman said in his Monday order.
“Suffice to say that the Court has given this matter careful review and concludes that ‘justice requires’ that discovery be had regarding these statements and their context. The Court will then consider them anew on summary judgment,” he said.
Key to the court's decision was the allegation that the Post's reporting was the result of its negligence or malice, which Mr. Sandmann and his attorneys hope will be proven through discovery:
In ruling that these statements were sufficient to allow Sandmann’s case to move forward, the court also noted that in his amended complaint, Sandmann alleged in great detail “that Phillips deliberately lied concerning the events at issue,” and that but for the Washington Post’s negligence or malice, they would have realized as much.
Sandmann’s case is far from over. Now, the parties must engage in the costly and time-consuming process of discovery. And that’s where things could get really interesting—when the Post is forced to hand over internal communications concerning its reporting on the MAGA-hat-wearing Sandmann and his Catholic classmates who had just attended the March for Life.
Proving a defamation case is notoriously difficult, but the discovery allowed in this case could certainly shed light on the approach taken by modern newsrooms to reporting viral stories and how they respond to stories where a conservative appears to be the "bad guy." We will keep you updated on this interesting case as it progresses.