A federal judge has thrown out defamation lawsuits against five media companies filed by Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky student who was vilified over a viral video clip showing him standing face-to-face with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial three years ago.
U.S. District Court Judge William O. Bertelsman dismissed Tuesday the five lawsuits accusing the outlets of false and defamatory conduct for their reporting on the Jan. 18, 2019, encounter between Nathan Phillips and Mr. Sandmann, who was 16 at the time.
Mr. Phillips accused the teen of blocking him, a narrative that drove the initial news coverage. A lengthier video released later showed that Mr. Phillips approached the Covington Catholic student, not the other way around, but the judge ruled that the older man’s statements were “objectively unverifiable.”
“Phillips’s statements that Sandmann ‘blocked’ him and ‘wouldn’t allow (him) to retreat’ are objectively unverifiable and thus unactionable opinions,” Judge Bertelsman said in his decision.
Mr. Sandmann’s lawsuit filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Kentucky named the New York Times, CBS, ABC, Gannett and Rolling Stone.
Sandmann attorney Todd McMurtry said Wednesday that he was “disappointed in the decision” and plans to appeal.
New York Times spokesperson Charlie Stadtlander applauded the judge’s ruling in a Wednesday statement.
“We welcome the decision yesterday by the federal district court in Kentucky, granting judgment in favor of The Times along with several other news organizations,” Mr. Stadtlander said. “The decision in the case reaffirms that The Times provided a fair account of the controversy surrounding the events that took place that day on the National Mall.”
Mr. Sandmann filed defamation lawsuits against eight media outlets. He previously reached undisclosed settlements with the other three: the Washington Post, CNN and NBC News.
The teen, who wore a red Make America Great Again ball cap, was waiting with dozens of students for buses to bring them back to Covington, Kentucky, after attending the 2019 March for Life. Mr. Phillips had participated in the Indigenous Peoples March on the same day.
Mr. Phillips played a drum as he walked toward the teen and stood in front of him, while Mr. Sandmann remained still and smiled.
The judge, who was nominated to the court by President Carter in 1979, said the articles reporting the claim by Mr. Phillips that he was blocked relied on his state of mind as well as that of the student’s.
“It has long been established that someone’s state of mind is not capable of being proven true or false,” the judge said, as reported by Kentucky.com.
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.