When a federal judge in Kentucky threw out a lawsuit against the Washington Post over its coverage of the Covington Catholic controversy, he said while the Post hadn’t defamed them, their language was “loose, figurative,” and “rhetorical hyperbole.”
The lawsuit, which centered around reporting done by the Post in the news section of their website, was brought by Nicholas Sandmann, the student that was criticized on social media and television for “smirking” at a Native American activist during a field trip to Washington D.C. It was dismissed in late July.
The video of the incident went viral shortly after being posted, and has come under scrutiny for its possible connections to the kinds of information warriors that rose to prominence during the 2016 presidential election. (RELATED: Biden Says Russian Interference Wouldn’t Have Happened On His Watch. It Did)
In the opinion the judge, a Jimmy Carter appointee, laid out multiple criteria that Sandmann’s defamation claim failed to meet, but one of the primary facets of the Post’s reporting that saved it from a defamation claim was apparently its frequent use of “loose, figurative,” and “rhetorical hyperbole.” This was in response to the lawsuit’s references to terms like “ugly,” “swarmed,” and “taunting,” which the plaintiffs claimed, in aggregate, constituted defamation against Sandmann.
The Post stood by the quality of their reporting, saying after the decision was issued:
“From our first story on this incident to our last, we sought to report fairly and accurately the facts that could be established from available evidence, the perspectives of all of the participants, and the comments of the responsible church and school officials … We are pleased that the case has been dismissed.”
The Post was forced to issue a lengthy series of corrections to its coverage in the days following the incident, including removing false claims about Phillips such as his veteran status. They also initially published claims that the Covington teens were chanting “build the wall” at Phillips. Though they corrected these claims they did not remove insinuations that Sandmann and his peers blocked Phillips’ path and were taunting the activist. These claims and the “gist” of the coverage done by the Post were the basis for Sandmann’s eventual lawsuit. (RELATED: ‘Barely Worth Comment’: Covington Student’s Lawyer Blasts WaPo Editor’s Note As Too Little Too Late)
Soon after the decision was issued, Covington students’ attorneys announced a new lawsuit against several high profile figures in a media and politics including Senator Elizabeth Warren, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, and comedian Kathy Griffin. The students on whose behalf the lawsuit has been filed are all anonymous.
The lawsuit’s dismissal will save the Post a financial headache, but the judge’s remarks may not be great for their reputation.