Commentary

'NYT,' 'WaPo,' Conde Nast Face Possible Libel Suits From Covington Student

Lawyers representing Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann and his family last week took the first step in filing possible libel suits against more than 50 news organizations, journalists, celebrities and religious organizations.

While the lawsuits may never get filed, given the legal costs associated with taking on some of the world’s biggest media companies with libel insurance, I hope the Covington incident will remind publishers about the responsibilities that come with the power to destroy a person’s reputation.

Sandmann’s lawyers sent document preservation letters — a standard part of the discovery process in a lawsuit — to organizations and individuals they believe may have defamed Sandmann with false reporting.

The court can levy damages against parties that destroy evidence in a civil proceeding. Tweets, printed articles and video clips from news broadcasts may be enough to convince juries that these groups neglected to determine whether their statements were factual.

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The New York Times, Condé Nast and The Washington Post are among the publications that Sandmann’s lawyers targeted in the letters, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The list of letter recipients includes journalists Maggie Haberman, David Brooks, Shannon Doyne and Kurt Eichenwald; presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), performers Jim Carrey, Alyssa Milano, Bill Maher and Kathy Griffin; the dioceses of Covington and Lexington; and the archdioceses of Louisville and Baltimore.

Sandmann appeared in a viral video clip purporting to show a standoff between white high-school kids and an elderly Native American man at a protest march in Washington. Longer videos later added more context that contradicted the media narrative.

The incident highlighted the perils of jumping to conclusions, based on a video snippet that was edited to create maximum outrage. It also fed into preconceived ideas about racial differences and injustices, a highly charged topic given America’s diabolical history of slavery and treatment of Native Americans.

Lawyer Todd McMurtry, a partner at Hemmer DeFrank Wessels, and attorney L. Lin Wood, one of the most successful libel attorneys in the United States, said they will seek justice for Sandmann.

Wood represented Rep. Gary Condit, who was a focal point in an unsolved murder case, and falsely accused Atlanta Olympics bomber Richard Jewell in lawsuits against the media. Wood also represented JonBenet Ramsey's brother in a $750 million defamation suit against CBS that was settled last month for an undisclosed sum.

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