A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by former Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann in which several news outlets reported that he had cornered and harassed a Native American man in 2019.
Sandmann became the focus of a national controversy after the video emerged showing himself and other Covington Catholic students standing in front of Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist. Sandmann and the other students were participating in the March for Life, an annual event for the pro-life movement. In 2019 the event coincided with the Indigenous Peoples March.
Multiple media organizations reported that Sandmann, who was wearing a Make America Great Again hat, and the other students had mocked, harassed and surrounded Phillips in an attempt to intimidate him. However, additional videos showed that Phillips had approached the students during their school cheer.
Sandmann became the focus of the controversy because he had smiled at the man in the video and became the primary target of the media.
After it was revealed that the controversy was fabricated, Sandmann filed defamation lawsuits against eight media companies. Three settled with Sandmann, but on Tuesday, a federal judge threw out the remaining lawsuits against The New York Times, ABC, CBS, Rolling Stone, and Gannett Co. Inc.
Todd McMurtry, Sandmann’s Attorney, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that they were “Disappointed” and intended to file an appeal, but declined to comment further. Sandmann himself also denied a request for an interview but said, “We’re fully prepared to argue these cases in the 6th Circuit.”
District Eastern Kentucky Court Judge William Bertelsman’s opinion focused on statements published by the news outlets in which Phillips had claimed Sandmann had “blocked” and “would not allow” him to retreat from the Lincoln Memorial.
Sandmann’s legal team argued that the reports had “conveyed false and defamatory charges” and that the media’s intent was malicious when they published.
Bertelsman found that Phillips’ statements about Sandmann’s actions were “objectively unverifiable and thus unactionable opinions.”
“Instead, a reasonable reader would understand that Phillips was simply conveying his view of the situation. And because the reader knew from the articles that this encounter occurred at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, he or she would know that the confrontation occurred in an expansive area such that it would be difficult to know what might constitute ‘blocking’ another person in that setting,” Bertelsman wrote.
The judge reasoned that the press did not defame Sandmann by reporting Phillips’ version of the incident since his statements were opinions and not facts.
“The media defendants were covering a matter of great public interest, and they reported Phillips’s first-person view of what he experienced,” he wrote. “This would put the reader on notice that Phillips was simply giving his perspective on the incident.”
He added, “Phillips’s statements did not imply the existence of any non-disclosed defamatory facts, and only under such circumstances does a statement of opinion lose its constitutional protection.”
“Therefore, in the factual context of this case, Phillips’s ‘blocking’ statements are protected opinions,” he concluded.
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