Judge dismisses Ky. student’s defamation suits against five media outlets

Nick Sandmann, then a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., and others students from the school stood in front of Native American Nathan Phillips near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in this still image from video Jan. 18, 2019. A federal judge in Kentucky July 26, 2022, dismissed defamation lawsuits filed by Sandmann against five national media outlets. (CNS Photo by Kaya Taitano, social media via Reuters)

COVINGTON, Ky. — A federal judge in Kentucky July 26 dismissed defamation lawsuits filed against five media outlets by a former Covington Catholic High School student and his family over their coverage of an incident that occurred after the 2019 March for Life that quickly went viral.

The coverage in question centered on Nicholas Sandmann’s encounter with a Native American activist on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A junior at the time, Sandmann was with other Covington students but he was the most prominent in viral footage of the Jan. 18, 2019, encounter in Washington.

The widely seen footage prompted accusations the 16-year-old’s conduct was racially motivated, which Sandmann denied.

Sandmann, now 20 and a rising junior at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., sued The New York Times, ABC News CBS News and Rolling Stone magazine for a combined $1.25 billion. He also sued the Gannett Media Co. and five of its publications: USA TODAY, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Detroit Free Press, The Courier Journal and the Tennessean, seeking $195 million.

He argued the media outlets’ stories on his encounter with Native American rights activist Nathan Phillips were defamatory. He objected to their reporting which included Phillips’ account that Sandmann was blocking him.

In his ruling, Judge William O. Bertelsman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky in Covington wrote: “The media defendants were covering a matter of great public interest, and they reported Phillips’s first-person view of what he experienced.”

“This would put the reader on notice that Phillips was simply giving his perspective on the incident. Therefore, in the factual context of this case, Phillips’ ‘blocking’ statements are protected opinions,” he wrote. “This holding moots all other motions before the court.”

Todd McMurtry, Sandmann’s attorney, told reporters he and his client were disappointed about the ruling and would appeal it.

Sandmann reached settlements of undisclosed amounts with CNN and The Washington Post in 2020 and NBC News in 2021 over their coverage of the incident.

The day of Sandmann’s encounter with Phillips, Sandmann, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, smiled just inches away from Phillips as he chanted and beat a drum.

The day after that encounter, clips from a video of it went viral almost immediately and showed students surrounding Phillips while appearing to be mocking him. The clip caused immediate outrage, particularly on social media. But by the next day, extended footage of how the situation unfolded revealed that another group had taunted the students and some responded back. Phillips said he had walked over to the students and that group as an intervention.

After the initial video went viral, Sandmann said in a statement he had “received physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults.”

Sandmann’s school and the Diocese of Covington initially condemned the students’ behavior but then backed down as more information came forth and they called for a third-party investigation into the situation.

The conclusion of that report, released by the Covington Diocese Feb. 13, 2019, found no evidence the students had issued “offensive or racist statements” that they had been accused of doing.

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