Covington Catholic student’s 5 libel lawsuits against national media dismissed
A federal judge has dismissed libel suits against five media companies that a Kentucky student filed following a January 2019 Lincoln Memorial incident in Washington DC that generated national media coverage.
Nick Sandmann, who was a 16-year-old student at Covington Catholic in northern Kentucky at the time of the incident, was at the center of videos that went viral that showed Sandmann and Nathan Phillips, a Native American, standing face to face as Phillips . beat a drum and sang a traditional song while Sandmann smiled.
All five lawsuits were dismissed by Judge William O. Bertelsman of the United States Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, according to documents filed Tuesday. The complaints targeted media outlets The New York Times, CBS, ABC, Gannett Co. Inc and Rolling Stone. Sandmann filed the lawsuits in federal court in Kentucky.
Sandmann’s attorney, Todd McMurtry, told the Herald-Leader they were “disappointed” and intended to appeal. He declined to comment further.
Sandmann also declined a request for an interview, but told the Herald-Leader, “We are fully prepared to argue these cases in the 6th Circuit.”
The decision centered on statements released by the media in which Phillips said Sandmann had “blocked” or “wouldn’t allow” him to leave as the two stood face to face in front of the monument.
A viral video featuring Native Americans made national news. Where is the high school boy now?
Sandmann argued that these claims were false and defamatory and that the companies had malicious intent in publishing them.
However, the judge ruled that these specific actions are “objectively unverifiable and therefore unenforceable opinions.”
“Instead, a reasonable reader would understand that Phillips was simply conveying his view of the situation,” Bertelsman said. “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 the wide area so it would be difficult to know what which could constitute a “blocking” of another person in this context.
The judge went on to say that Phillip’s statements, published in the articles, are based on assumptions about the state of mind of Phillip and Sandmann, and neither party had any way of knowing what the other thought or what she intended to do.
“It has long been established that a person’s state of mind cannot be proven true or false,” the judge said.
“The media defendants were covering a matter of great public interest, and they reported Phillips’ first-person view of what he went through. It would alert the reader that Phillips was merely giving his perspective on the incident,” Bertelsman wrote.
The judge added that Phillips’ statements did not imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts, and it is only in such circumstances that a statement of opinion loses its constitutional protection.
“Therefore, in the factual context of this case, Phillips’ ‘blocking’ statements are protected opinions,” he determined.
Sandmann sued eight media outlets. Five of the cases were dismissed by a judge and three of the cases were settled.