Covington Students Sue NYT Reporter, CNN Analysts, Sen. Warren for Libel

August 3, 2019 Updated: August 3, 2019

Eight students from Covington Catholic School have filed a lawsuit against reporters, media personalities, and a sitting senator who they said libeled them.

New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and CNN personalities Reza Aslan and Ana Navarro were named in the suit.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), comedian Kathy Griffin, ABC News analyst Michael Dowd, Kentucky businessman Adam Edelen, activist Shaun King, Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery, Rewire.News editor Jodi Jacobson, and historian Kevin Kruse were also sued.

The lawsuit comes about a week after a federal judge in Kentucky dismissed a lawsuit filed by Nick Sandmann, a Covington student, against The Washington Post.

A judge said words used to describe Sandmann and other students, such as “taunting,” “smirking,” and “anti-American sentiment” were opinions and thus “not actionable in libel actions.”

Attorneys Robert Barnes and Kevin Murphy are representing the students in the suit, which was filed in Kentucky’s Kenton County Circuit Court.

The attorneys said in the suit that on Jan. 18, “A field trip to our nation’s capital for a group of minors from Covington, Kentucky turned into a social media nightmare that changed their futures forever.”

Nick Sandmann in crowd
Nick Sandmann, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, looks at Nathan Phillips, a Native American anti-President Donald Trump activist, in Washington on Jan. 18, 2019. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

On that day, Sandmann came face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist who misrepresented what happened and lied about his military service. News outlets and reporters took Phillips’s account at face value, ignoring multiple videos that undermined his claims about that day.

“Several of our Senators, most-famous celebrities, and widely read journalists, collectively used their large social media platforms, perceived higher credibility and public followings to lie and libel minors they never met, based on an event they never witnessed,” the lawsuit said.

“These defendants called for the kids to be named and shamed, doxxed, and expelled, and invited public retaliation against these minors from a small town in Kentucky. The defendants circulated false statements about them to millions of people around the world. The video of the entire event, known to the defendants, exposed all of their factual claims against the kids as lies.”

“The defendants were each individually offered the opportunity to correct, delete, and/or apologize for their false statements, but each refused, continuing to circulate the false statements about these children to this very day on their social media platforms they personally control,” the attorneys added.

Host Kathy Griffin speaks onstage during The 41st Annual Daytime Emmy Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., on June 22, 2014. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for NATAS)

Haberman said in a missive that the Covington students in the video should be expelled, while Navarro said that the boys were racist and had learned their alleged bad behavior from Trump.

Aslan posted a picture of Sandmann, adding in a caption, “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”

Griffin called for the boys to be doxxed, or have their private information shared online. Some students did get doxxed and their school had to close for a spell after receiving bomb threats. “Name these kids. I want NAMES. Shame them. If you think these [expletive] wouldn’t dox you in a heartbeat, think again,” Griffin wrote on Twitter.

Barnes told Fox News that the lawsuit is different from the one that was filed against The Post before being dismissed, saying people are different than institutions under Kentucky law.

“The reason they’re being sued is because they used their big platforms to lie and libel about these kids and have refused to issue any correction at all,” Barnes said.

Retractions

Barnes added to Law & Crime that numerous people “used their big social media platforms to form a digital lynch mob against a bunch of kids they never knew from an event they didn’t witness.”

“Most retracted, deleted, and corrected their statements, a few refused long after afforded a chance to do so,” he added.

CNN host S.E. Cupp was among those apologizing for her initial reaction to the stories and video, telling her followers: “Hey guys. Seeing all the additional videos now, and I 100% regret reacting too quickly to the Covington story. I wish I’d had the fuller picture before weighing in, and I’m truly sorry. Long after afforded a chance to do so.”

Recode journalist Kara Swisher was another, apologizing after calling the students “Nazis” and “nationalists.”

The National Review was forced to unpublish an article, a highly unusual move, after the full video footage emerged. The outlet apologized for the post, in which the author alleged that the students “might as well have just spit on the cross.”

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber
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