Catholic school students sue Haaland, 11 others

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is facing a defamation lawsuit over comments she made to the press and on social media about a January incident on the National Mall involving teenagers from a Catholic school in Kentucky and a Native American demonstrator.

Rep. Deb Haaland
Rep. Deb Haaland

The parents of eight students from Covington Catholic High School filed suit on behalf of their sons last week in Kenton County Circuit Court in Kentucky against Haaland and 11 other defendants, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., CNN political analyst Ana Navarro, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman and comedian Kathy Griffin, over comments they made after the encounter between Covington Catholic students and Native American veteran Nathan Phillips on Jan. 18. Video of the incident went viral.

The lawsuit claimed the defendants “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.”

Haaland’s office told the Journal on Tuesday that the congresswoman has not been served with the complaint and has not reviewed the lawsuit. It also said she couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Initial videos portrayed the students as mocking Phillips as he beat on a drum in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Videos with wider angles showed Phillips wading into the Covington Catholic students as words were reportedly exchanged between the group and a gathering of nearby protesters called the Black Hebrew Israelites. Phillips claimed in interviews that he was afraid of the students, many of whom were wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats.

But the lawsuit claims Phillips had clear paths to avoid the students.

The lawsuit also claims each of the defendants was asked to retract, correct or delete comments they made about the incident, but that the defendants refused. The suit claims the comments were offending and defamatory.

Haaland had spoken to the press about the incident.

“I feel like some of that has truly been lost and that’s all condoned by our president,” Haaland told The Hill in an interview Jan. 19, referring to a decline in mutual respect in recent years. “You could tell that by the hats they were wearing.”

Haaland told The Hill she hoped the school and their parents “look deep into themselves” and teach their children “some manners and respect.”

“Every student in this country should know that there would be no United States without Native Americans,” Haaland said. “It’s a shame they didn’t sit and listen quietly and learn. … It was wrong-headed for them to antagonize him, so I hope they learn some Native American history and cultural sensitivity.”

Among Haaland’s posts about the incident on Twitter:

• “A Native American Vietnam War veteran was seen being harassed and mocked by a group of MAGA hat-wearing teens.” The post linked to a story by the Huffington Post.

• “This Veteran put his life on the line for our country. The students’ display of blatant hate, disrespect, and intolerance is a signal of how common decency has decayed under this administration. Heartbreaking.”

A comprehensive examination of several videos seemed to back up the students’ claims that they did not instigate the incident involving Phillips. Phillips also did not serve in Vietnam.

The suit seeks between $15,000 and $50,000 from each defendant, or more than the cost of four years’ tuition at the University of Kentucky. It says the plaintiffs seek no fame or fortune but seek to protect future families from “experiencing the nightmare the defendants caused these kids to experience.”

The suit claims the students were subjected to public hatred, scorn and shame.

Los Angeles attorney Robert Barnes and Kevin L. Murphy of Murphy Landen Jones in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, represent the plaintiffs.

Barnes made an offer to represent the students pro bono on Twitter and various broadcast networks, including the weekday morning TV news show “Fox & Friends” days after the incident.

According to his firm’s website, Barnes has also represented Alex Jones in one of the suits brought against him by parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in 2012 over alleged comments by Jones they claimed called the shootings a hoax, and actor Wesley Snipes in a case against the Internal Revenue Service.

The suit involving Haaland was filed a week after a federal judge in Kentucky dismissed a $250 million libel suit against The Washington Post filed by Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington student shown on videos smiling in front of Phillips. U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman ruled that the Post’s stories and tweets were protected by the First Amendment. He found none of the statements that Sandmann sued about defamatory, but said the majority constituted opinion.

His parents said they planned to appeal the decision.

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