Covington Student Hits Back

News: Commentary
by Bruce Walker  •  •  February 4, 2019   

Multiple public figures, news outfits named in Nick Sandmann's demand letters

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Nick Sandmann is hitting back at multiple groups that misportrayed his actions at the March for Life. Lawyers for Sandmann — the 16-year-old student physically confronted by 64-year-old Native American protestor Nathan Phillips — issued letters Friday to 54 media outlets, celebrities and Catholic organizations putting them on notice of a potential lawsuit, and informing them to preserve all documents related to the case.

Among media outlets who received letters from Sandmann's attorney, Todd McMurtry, are The Washington Post, CNN, The New York Times, National Public Radio, the archdiocese of Louisville, the diocese of Covington and Home Box Office, among others. McMurtry is affiliated with the Cincinnati, Ohio law firm Hemmer Defrank Wessels and is working with libel and defamation attorney L. Lin Wood of Atlanta, Georgia.

Individuals on McMurtry's list of letter recipients include Bill Maher, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kathy Griffin, Alyssa Milano and Jim Carrey, as well as a host of individual reporters from major media outfits. The letters are the first step in possible defamation and libel lawsuits.

Video produced by Lin Wood, one of Sandmann's attorneys

A short clip from a much longer video seemingly depicting Sandmann sneering disrespectfully at Phillips went viral following the Covington students' participation in the annual March for Life, held every January on the Washington Mall.

Following immediate denunciations by news outlets, pundits and even the Church hierarchy from the Covington boys' parish and diocese in Kentucky, a longer video was released that revealed the context: The young men were harassed verbally by a group calling themselves the Black Hebrew Israelites, and Phillips subsequently interjected himself into the situation.

The shorter clip and one still image captured from the video, however, was interpreted incorrectly as evidence that the young men were exhibiting "white privilege" by wearing red "Make America Great Again" ball caps and allegedly mocking Phillips — a leftwing activist chanting and banging a drum inches from Sandmann's face, and who had actually been the one to approach the student until the two stood face to face.

The letters are the first step in possible defamation and libel lawsuits.

The Covington students' case was undermined initially by Phillips' claim that the young men were instigating the public confrontation with the Black Hebrew Israelites.

According to the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 20:

Phillips, a former Marine, said the incident started as a group of Catholic students from Kentucky were observing the Black Israelites talk, and started to get upset at their speeches. The Catholic group then got bigger and bigger, with more than 100 assembled at one point, he said. ...

"They were in the process of attacking these four black individuals," Phillip said. "I was there and I was witnessing all of this ... As this kept on going on and escalating, it just got to a point where you do something or you walk away, you know? You see something that is wrong and you're faced with that choice of right or wrong." ...

"There was that moment when I realized I've put myself between beast and prey," Phillips said. "These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey, and I stood in between them and so they needed their pounds of flesh and they were looking at me for that."

Phillips' claims run contrary to events depicted in the video but were widely accepted as an accurate representation of that day's proceedings. Phillips also asserted the young men were chanting "Build the Wall," also contradicted by events documented in the nearly two-hour video.

Rolling Stone magazine writer Peter Wade reported the same day as the Detroit Free Press article, "The video is a disturbing and eerie echo of angry white mobs yelling at Black Americans for protesting Jim Crow-era discrimination, but now streaming in full color on social media in the year 2019."

The magazine also claimed Phillips served in Vietnam, a claim that has since been shown to be false. Rolling Stone has yet to issue any retraction.

But some are objecting to Sandmann's claim of defamation. The editorial board of The Baltimore Sun published a recent column claiming the archdiocese did not commit defamation when it charged the teen with showing "disrespect." It also argued that the Constitution protects organizations in cases like these.

"The First Amendment creates a system in which confrontation of opinion is protected, even if it hurts someone else's feelings or offends their sensibilities," The Baltimore Sun argued.

Defamation, however, is not protected under the First Amendment. Uttering falsehoods that tarnish or destroy a person's reputation is not a constitutionally protected right. Thus, this case goes far beyond merely hurting someone's feelings or offending their sensibilities.

Some commentators remain unapologetic, continuing to frame the issue in terms of race. Dustin Selbert, writing for The Jacksonville Free Press, wrote an article Tuesday titled "The Magic of White Privilege: How the media is turning a smug faced teen into a 'bullied' saint."

"Nick Sandmann ... became the punchable white face of the whole affair when video circulated of him standing directly in front of elder Nathan Phillips as he drummed and chanted," Selbert wrote. "Sandmann has what appears (to everyone) to be a smirk as his classmates antagonized Phillips in the background; MAGA hats sit atop the heads."


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