'Covington kid' Nicholas Sandmann loses lawsuits against media outlets including NYT, ABC, and Rolling Stone

Nicholas Sandmann pictured in a Republican National Convention video from 2021, wearing a MAGA hat.
Nicholas Sandmann pictured in a Republican National Convention video from 2021, wearing a MAGA hat.RNC via Reuters
  • Nicholas Sandmann, the former Covington high schooler, has lost a handful of defamation cases.

  • He tried to sue outlets including The New York Times and ABC News over coverage of a 2019 protest encounter.

  • On Tuesday the judge threw the cases out, saying they were based on unverifiable opinion.

Nicholas Sandmann, the teen who appeared in a viral video in an apparent confrontation with a Native American elder in 2019, has lost his defamation lawsuits against several media companies.

A federal judge struck the cases filed by Sandmann against The New York Times, CBS News, ABC News, NBC Universal Media, Rolling Stone, and Gannett on Tuesday, court documents show.

Sandmann's lawsuit was based around statements by the elder, Nathan Phillips, that Sandmann had blocked his path in the encounter — which were widely aired in the media.

In summary, however, Judge William O. Bertelsman said these were "objectively unverifiable and thus unactionable opinions."

Sandmann said in a Wednesday tweet that the ruling was a "disappointment," saying he plans to appeal.

The case stems back to a widely-covered encounter at an Indigenous People's March in Washington, D.C. in January 2019, when a crowd of students from Covington Catholic High — many wearing "MAGA" hats – met with the march in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

One short video showed Sandmann, then 16 years old, standing in front of Phillips with a smile on his face, as Phillips played a drum. The fellow high schoolers Sandmann was with danced and yelled along with the drumming.

The footage was widely shared on social media and on mainstream media outlets, and sparked criticism of Sandmann and the school.

While many commentators interpreted Sandmann's demeanor as smirking and blocking Phillips, Sandmann said he was trying to "defuse the situation" by "remaining motionless and calm," CNN reported.

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Further footage emerged a day later, providing much greater context — including the fact that a separate group of protesters had been yelling offensive terms at the group that Sandmann was standing with, prior to the moment Phillips approached him.

Sandmann filed several lawsuits with news outlets that had sympathetically interviewed Phillips following the encounter. He objected to widely-reported statements by Phillips to the effect that Sandmann had "blocked" him and "would not allow him to retreat."

But the judge said that these are "objectively unverifiable" and so can only count as opinion, which is unactionable in this case, as it is protected speech.

Bertelsman also said: "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."

The case came at a time of widespread racial tension, but the judge said his decisions were made "with no consideration of the rancorous political debate associated with these cases."

Since the incident, Sandmann has become a cause célèbre in conservative circles. Sandmann addressed the Republican National Convention in 2020 in a pre-recorded speech.

Fox News' Tucker Carlson argued in 2019 that the furor wasn't "an argument about facts and evidence and truth. It's an argument about identity," in reference Sandmann's apparently conservative politics.

Both CNN and The Washington Post, who Sandmann also sued, settled in 2020 for undisclosed sums. Neither outlet admitted any wrongdoing in their coverage.

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