Louisville Judge dismisses former Covington Catholic student’s defamation lawsuits

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A federal judge on Tuesday threw out multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuits against five media companies brought by a Kentucky student involved in a 2019 widely viewed encounter with a Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

At the time, Sandmann was a 16-year-old Covington Catholic student. Now, he is at Transylvania University with intentions to graduate in 2024, according to his Twitter biography. Here he is a member of the Kappa Alpha Order Fraternity, which according to its Facebook page, “emulates chivalric ideals and genteel ethics,” and “seeks to teach young men to be leaders; to be brave, self reliant, and to continually strive to better themselves.”

In September of 2020, the New York Post reported an American Civil Liberties Union official in Kentucky chastised Transylvania University over the weekend for accepting Nicholas Sandmann as a student, calling the move a “stain” on the institution.

After the 2019 incident, Sandmann sued several media companies, alleging they defamed him in their reporting of the incident. The lawsuits sought tens of millions of dollars in damages.

The actions of Sandmann and his classmates were intensely debated online after video and photographs emerged of them wearing “Make America Great Again” hats near a Native American man, Nathan Phillips, playing a drum.

Phillips accused Sandmann in media reports of blocking his way as Phillips moved through the crowd. Sandmann argued in the lawsuits that Phillips’ statement was defamatory.

But “Phillips’s statements that Sandmann “blocked” him and “wouldn’t allow (him) to retreat” are objectively unverifiable and thus unactionable opinions,” U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman wrote in a ruling filed Tuesday.

Sandmann’s attorney, Todd McMurtry, said Wednesday that he is disappointed in the ruling and plans to appeal.

Sandmann’s lawsuits against The New York Times, CBS News, ABC News, Gannett and Rolling Stone magazine were filed in March 2020. In the lawsuit against The New York Times, Sandmann sought $65 million in damages. He sought $60 million from CBS News.

Sandmann, who was standing with dozens of his classmates on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, argued in the lawsuit against the New York Times that the newspaper’s reporting conveyed “the false and defamatory gist that Nicholas was the face of an unruly hate mob …”

Both Sandmann and Phillips have said they were trying to defuse tensions rising among various groups on a day when Washington hosted both the Indigenous Peoples March and the anti-abortion March for Life, which was attended by the Covington students. Video of the encounter showed Sandmann and Phillips standing close to each other, with Sandmann staring and at times smiling at Phillips as he sang and played a drum.

Sandmann reached undisclosed settlements with CNN and The Washington Post in 2020 and NBC News in 2021 over their coverage of the incident.

Sandmann works for Kentucky congressman Andy Barr

While some thought it a stain to the university, the 2019 video, where Sandmann was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, gained positive feedback from several Kentucky Republican politicians including Congressman Andy Barr, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom Sandmann has worked for.

In 2020, Sandmann was hired by McConnell’s election campaign as a grassroots director. According to a report from The Hill, Sandmann’s job entailed assisting in field operations and building coalitions.

“We’re excited to have Nicholas on Team Mitch. Along with our already strong team, his efforts to bring people together all across Kentucky will be critical to Senator McConnell’s victory this November,” said campaign manager Kevin Golden to The Hill.

Today, Barr’s campaign confirmed to the Herald Leader, Sandmann is a field director Barr, who represents the 6th District in Central Kentucky.