The MAGA hat-wearing high school student who stood face-to-face with a Native American leader on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial lost five libel lawsuits against media companies on Wednesday.
Nick Sandmann, then 16, was captured in a viral video smirking at Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips as Phillips played a drum on Jan. 18, 2019.
That initial video shot went around the world before the full incident — including radical Hebrew Israelites showering the students in taunts and Phillips separately walking up to them in the first place — was widely known.
Sandmann sued several media outlets for running with the story before the full context was known. He settled cases with the Washington Post, CNN and NBC News. On Wednesday, he lost cases against the New York Times, ABC, CBS, Rolling Stone and the Gannett chain.
“The media defendants were covering a matter of great public interest, and they reported Phillips’s first-person view of what he experienced,” wrote Judge William Bertelsman in his decision, obtained by Law & Crime. “This would put the reader on notice that Phillips was simply giving his perspective on the incident.”
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Sandmann became the face of the teenagers from Covington Catholic High School in the Cincinnati suburb of Park Hills, Ky. They were at the Lincoln Memorial for an anti-abortion rally that had just ended. Phillips was there for an Indigenous Peoples March that was ongoing.
While the kids were waiting for school buses to pick them up, a small group of Hebrew Israelites began taunting the kids as “incest children” and “future school shooters.” The students responded by backing off and then launching into animated school chants.
Phillips said he saw the large group of white teenagers apparently taunting the small group of Black men and stepped between them to ensure peace.
“There was that moment when I realized I’ve put myself between beast and prey,” Phillips told the Detroit Free Press in 2019. “It was ugly, what these kids were involved in. It was racism. It was hatred. It was scary.”
Sandmann said he smirked because he interpreted Phillips’ approach as a threat and smiled to let him know that he wouldn’t be drawn into any physical conflict.
The libel case focused on whether Sandmann and the other students were “blocking” Phillips. Bertelsman, who was appointed to the bench in 1979 by Jimmy Carter, said if Phillips felt he was blocked, and the news outlets provided his side of the story, then it was a “protected opinion” and therefore Sandmann’s suits were moot.
In 2020, Sandmann parlayed the attention into a speaking opportunity at the Republican National Convention and a job with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s reelection campaign. He told multiple outlets that he would appeal Wednesday’s decision.