CINCINNATI, Ohio (LifeSiteNews) — Nick Sandmann lost his appeal in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to sue mainstream media outlets for libel for their reporting on his 2019 encounter at the March for Life with leftist activist Nathan Phillips.
Defendants in this case include the New York Times, CBS News, ABC News (owned by Disney), and Gannett, which owns local newspapers across the country.
Judge Jane Stranch, an Obama appointee, wrote the majority opinion which Biden appointee Judge Stephanie Davis joined. Judge Richard Griffin, an appointee of George W. Bush, dissented.
The 2–1 ruling upheld a federal district court ruling in Kentucky and centered around this quote, which Phillips gave to The Washington Post and was subsequently quoted by other outlets.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial. I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat,” Phillips claimed about the pro-life Catholic teenager.
The outlets did not defame Sandmann, the judges ruled, because they simply “describe a contentious encounter, the meaning of which was hotly disputed by participants and witnesses.”
The ruling affirmed Eastern Kentucky U.S. District Court Judge William Bertelsman’s July 2022 decision that the outlets reported Phillips’ “objectively unverifiable and thus unactionable 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 expansive area such that it would be difficult to know what might constitute ‘blocking’ another person in that setting.”
Kentucky law, the judges ruled, “protects opinion statements from having a defamatory meaning.”
Judge Griffin disagreed and wrote a dissenting opinion.
“Through their news reporting, defendants portrayed plaintiff Nicholas Sandmann as a racist against Native Americans,” Griffin wrote. “Their characterization of Nicholas was vicious, widespread, and false.”
“These cases should be submitted to a jury to decide the factual issue of whether each defendant exercised reasonable care in its reporting,” Griffin wrote.
He disagreed with his colleagues and wrote that the “blocking statements” from Phillips should have been verified by the media outlets.
In my view, the statements that Sandmann blocked Nathan Phillips’s ascension to the Lincoln Memorial; prevented Phillips from retreating; and impeded Phillips’s movements by stepping to his left and stepping to his right, were actions capable of objective verification. Thus, because these events can be objectively verified, I would hold that the opinion exception to the laws of defamation does not apply.
He listed other charged statements, including headlines, used by the various headlines to smear Sandmann. “Covington school kids intimidated Native Americans. Who taught them that,” one article in The Tennessean, owned by Gannett, stated.
“Students in ‘MAGA’ hats taunt indigenous elder, demonstrators in Washington: VIDEO,” an ABC News article on January 20, 2019, stated.
“Sandmann argues that the blocking, retreating, and sliding statements were objectively verifiable and, therefore, factual statements capable of defamatory meaning,” the judge wrote. “I agree.”
Sandmann could appeal for a full circuit hearing.
He has continued to speak about the treatment he received, including speaking at a roundtable on defamation and the media hosted by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis earlier this year.
“In my case, I didn’t have any reputation to ruin. I didn’t have any kind of career,” Sandmann said. The media had “predetermined what the rest of my future was going to look like” after rushing to judgment in response to “a 60-second clip from Twitter.”