The family of the Kentucky teen who was involved in an encounter with a Native American advocate at the Lincoln Memorial last month filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post on Tuesday, seeking US$250 million (NZ$364 million) in damages for its coverage of the incident.
The suit alleges that The Post "targeted and bullied" 16-year-old Nicholas Sandmann in order to embarrass President Donald Trump. Sandmann was one of a number of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky who were wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats during a trip to the National Mall when they encountered Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist.
News accounts, including in The Post, and videos of their encounter sparked a heated national debate over the behavior of the participants.
"In a span of three days in January of this year commencing on January 19, the Post engaged in a modern-day form of McCarthyism by competing with CNN and NBC, among others, to claim leadership of a mainstream and social media mob of bullies which attacked, vilified, and threatened Nicholas Sandmann, an innocent secondary school child," reads the complaint.
It added, "The Post ignored basic journalist standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump by impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the President."
The suit was filed by Sandmann's parents, Ted and Julie, on Nicholas's behalf in US District Court in Covington. It seeks US$250 million (NZ$364 million) because Amazon chief executive Jefff Bezos paid that amount for the newspaper when he bought it in 2013.
The lengthy complaint, which carried the names of five attorneys from two law firms, alleged seven "false and defamatory" articles published online or in print by The Post. It also cited tweets sent by The Post to promote its stories.
The Sandmanns' lead attorney is L. Lin Wood, who represented Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely accused in the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996. He also represented John and Patsy Ramsey in pursuing defamation claims against media outlets in connection with reports on the death of their young daughter, JonBenet.
A Post spokeswoman, Kristine Coratti Kelly, said in response to the suit, "We are reviewing a copy of the lawsuit, and we plan to mount a vigorous defense."
According to the allegations made in the complaint, Nicholas Sandmann and his classmates were waiting for a bus at the Lincoln Memorial after attending the March for Life rally on the Mall when a group of African-American men who call themselves Hebrew Israelites began yelling racial epithets at them. The high school group began a series of school sports chants in response, the complaint said.
Phillips, a self-described Native American activist who was on the Mall that day for the Indigenous Peoples March, has said he was walking toward the Lincoln Memorial when he encountered the Covington group. He was chanting and beating a small drum when he came face to face with Sandmann.
The Sandmanns' suit asserts that the newspaper "bullied" Sandmann in its reporting "because he was the white, Catholic student wearing a red 'Make America Great Again' souvenir cap."
It calls Phillips "a phony war hero [who] was too intimidated by the unruly Hebrew Israelites to approach them, the true troublemakers, and instead chose to focus on a group of innocent children."
It added that The Post "did not conduct a proper investigation before publishing its false and defamatory statements of and concerning Nicholas."
It also accused The Post of ignoring online videos that showed a fuller picture of the incident and of using "unreliable and biased sources," thus acting with "knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth." A plaintiff must show that a defendant acted with "reckless disregard" to sustain a defamation action.