(CN) – A federal judge in Kentucky dismissed a $250 million libel and defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post, finding that the newspaper’s coverage of a January incident between a high school student and an American Indian activist was not defamatory in any way.
U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman issued the 36-page opinion on Friday, ruling that the Post’s reporting on an incident between high school student Nicholas Sandmann and activist Nathan Phillips on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. was not defamatory.
The incident took place on Jan. 19, involving students from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, and two other groups of people.
According to court documents, Sandmann and his classmates were attending an anti-abortion march when they were threatened by a group of men from an organization called the Black Hebrew Israelites. Following this, a third group of Native Americans, which included Phillips, approached the students waiting at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
What culminated was a moment where Phillips stood directly in front of Sandmann. In video of the incident, Phillips is seen beating a drum and singing, while Sandmann is standing still. The event ended when Sandmann and the other students were sent back to their buses.
The Post’s coverage of the incident, which Sandmann claims painted him in a false light, prompted him to file his complaint against the newspaper in February.
Sandman’s lawsuit laid heavy claims, accusing the newspaper of engaging in a “modern-day form of McCarthyism” by attacking and vilifying him with its coverage.
The suit introduced 33 separate statements written or published by the Post, which it claims are defamatory. The lawsuit also claims that Sandmann was targeted because he is a white Catholic school student and because he was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat during the incident.
Video of the incident became popular and sparked many news outlets, including the Post, to report about what had transpired. The video of the incident sparked loud opinions online, with some claiming that the students were disrespecting Phillips. However, the online backlash to the video had no effect on the claims against the Post, Bertelsman found.
“And while unfortunate, it is further irrelevant that Sandmann was scorned on social media,” the judge wrote.
In his ruling, Bertelsman engages with almost none of the more bombastic claims levied by the lawsuit, and instead analyzes the 33 statements Sandmann claims were defamatory.
Bertelsman found that some of the statements in question are actually not about Sandmann, and simply refer to the groups of people involved in the incident.
The judge also said many of the statements are opinions, some of which are derived from Phillips himself who claimed that he felt “blocked” by the students.
“Few principles of the law are as well-established as the rule that statements of opinion are not actionable in libel actions,” Bertelsman wrote. He continued that statements challenged by Sandmann do “not form the basis for a defamation claim.”
Bertelsman went on to explain that even if an opinion could be found “erroneous,” it is still protected by the First Amendment.
This ruling was the first in three cases Sandmann has filed against major news outlets. Sandmann’s defamation lawsuits against CNN and NBCUniversal Media are still pending.