Nicholas Sandmann, the former Kentucky high school student who sued multiple media organizations after he was described as “blocking” a Native American activist in Washington, has just lost big-time. On Tuesday, a federal district court judge threw out his libel claims against The New York Times, CBS News, ABC News, Gannett and Rolling Stone. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post tweeted out the news Tuesday night:
Judge William Bertelsman granted summary judgment, which means that he found Sandmann’s case so lacking that it should not proceed to a full trial, according to Hailey Konnath of Law360.
Sandmann achieved fame and notoriety in 2019 when he and his fellow students at Covington Catholic High School were confronted by a Native American activist named Nathan Phillips while they were demonstrating against abortion rights. Videos of the scene showed Sandmann wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap and standing his ground, apparently refusing to move for Phillips, who got extremely close to Sandmann while beating a drum.
Phillips told reporters that Sandmann “blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat,” a statement that formed the basis of Sandmann’s libel suits. Judge Bertelsman ruled that Phillips’ words were a matter of opinion, not fact, and that opinion that can neither be proved true or false was protected under the First Amendment. Bertelsman wrote that
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.
Sandmann had already settled out of court with The Washington Post, CNN and NBC News — actions I hope they now regret. Deep-pocketed media defendants in libel suits should refuse to settle when weak claims are filed against them lest they provide an incentive for others to file similar suits.
Sandmann’s lawyer says he plans to appeal. But of course.