Commentary

Kentucky Teen's Lawyer Issues Empty Threats Against 'WaPo'

The Washington Postlast week settled a lawsuit with the parents of a Kentucky teenager who claimed the newspaper defamed him in a story about his encounter with a Native American activist during a protest march last year.

The confidential settlement should have marked an end to the teen's $250 million claim against WaPo, but instead has led to a silly Twitter scuffle that includes an empty legal threat against the newspaper.

Attorney Lin Wood, who represents the family of 18-year-old Nicholas Sandmann in a series of ongoing defamation suits against major media outlets, this week threatened to sue WaPo for allegedly breaching the confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement.
His threat was based on a distasteful comment about the settlement by WaPo reporter Dan Zak, who tweeted: "You settle for a small amount -- without admitting fault (because there was none) -- in order to avoid a more expensive trial that you would nonetheless win. It is, you might say, the American way."
The tweet triggered a response from Wood, who posted a screen grab of Zak's comment with the threat: "This tweet by @MrDanZak may have cost him his job as a journalist at @washingtonpost. It is called breach of confidentiality agreement. Dan Zak is a liar. I know how to deal with liars."
Zak deleted the tweet, with a spokesperson for WaPo saying it was removed "because it had no basis in fact" and that "Dan has no knowledge about the agreement."
I believe that statement, because I don't think Zak received any information about the settlement from WaPo's lawyers or management in what would be a significant breach of the confidentiality agreement. I also don't think Zak should make goading comments about a lawsuit involving a teenager who was unfairly portrayed in WaPo's sloppy, one-sided story.
The newspaper can't claim journalistic high ground or victory in a case that had to be settled out of court, especially since newspapers typically win defamation cases or succeed in having them dismissed. Last year, a federal judge in Kentucky had dismissed the suit, but later reinstated part of it following an amended complaint by Sandmann's lawyers.
If WaPo's lawyers had any confidence the newspaper would prevail in court and avoid paying damages, they wouldn't have settled. That said, Sandmann's lawyer doesn't have convincing evidence to claim WaPo breached the terms of last week's settlement of the defamation suit.

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