The legal team that represents former Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann, now 20, is to file an appeal after defamation lawsuits against five media outlets were dismissed by the court this week. A federal judge dismissed multi million-dollar defamation lawsuits against The New York Times, CBS News, ABC News, Gannett, and Rolling Stone magazine. The lawsuits were filed by a Kentucky student involved in a 2019 encounter with a Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The video with the encounter posted on social media was widely viewed at the time.
The actions of Sandmann and his classmates were intensely debated on social media. The video shows them wearing “MAGA” hats near a Native American man, Nathan Phillips, playing a drum. According to media reports, Phillips accused Sandmann of blocking his way as he moved through the crowd. Sandmann argued that those statements were defamatory.
Sandmann’s lawsuits against the media companies were initially filed in March 2020. He alleged that they defamed him in their reporting of the incident. In the suit against The New York Times, Sandmann demanded $65 million in damages. He also requested $60 million from CBS News.
He settled for undisclosed amounts with CNN, the Washington Post and NBC News for their reporting. But this week U.S. Judge William O. Bertelsman wrote in his ruling that Phillips’ statements that Sandmann “blocked” him and “wouldn’t allow (him) to retreat” are “objectively unverifiable and thus unactionable opinions” and thus threw out Sandmann’s multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuits against media companies as mentioned.
Sandmann’s attorney, Todd McMurtry, reported to the media that he is disappointed in the ruling and that they are planning to appeal. “Obviously, the ruling yesterday was a disappointment for my family and I. I’m appealing the decision in the sixth circuit,” Sandmann declared in his own personal statement in response to this week’s ruling. “Judge Bertelsmann revisited the statements that I ‘blocked Nathan Phillips’ and ‘would not allow him to retreat.’ His job was to rule on the legal issue of what those statements were.”
“If they were factual claims, I could proceed and a jury would then decide if they were defamatory. But if they were opinions, it is protected speech that I cannot sue for,” Sandmann continued. “The judge ruled that the media companies published opinion. The problem is: it isn’t.”
Sandmann explained his point by noting that stating “X did Y” is different from stating “I believe X is Y.” “I should be able to proceed due to the factual claim the defending media companies made which was used in conjunction with negative connotations of racism and harassment that defamed me,” Sandmann added. “I wrote an op-ed recently in which I mentioned defamation cases being a uphill battle. This is why. There is complete indisputable video evidence along with publications that [published] falsehoods.”
“Nevertheless, I have learned how to be patient and keep the will to move forward. I am going to continue on that path,” he concluded in the statement.