Nicholas Sandmann v. WP Company, LLC, d/b/a The Washington Post, No. 2-019-00019 (WOB-CJS). Opinion and Order of Dismissal with Prejudice, July 26, 2019 (E.D. Ky.)
An encounter between a high school student and a Native American activist on the National Mall in January, 2019, was videotaped and widely distributed on the internet.
The day having been one of several groups’ gathering to exercise First Amendment freedoms, the appearance of conflict between an adolescent wearing a MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hat and a drumming Native American was undoubtedly newsworthy and of public interest.
Interaction among students from a Catholic High School who had traveled to Washington to engage in pro-life activity and a Native American participating in an Indigenous Peoples’ March could only be catnip to those inclined to perceive any encounter between persons of differing demographic groups as a manifestation of one form of social ill or another.
Upon posting of the video, the internet blew up, and the commentariat raged apace, in general denouncing the adolescent Sandmann and applauding the Native American Nathan Phillips.
Some days hence, questions arose as to the bona fides of the initial accounts of the exchange, which questions were buttressed by disclosure of additional video.
Religious superiors affiliated with Sandmann’s high school condemned the incident, a position from which retrenchment was necessitated upon disclosure of additional information.
Interviews and talk show appearances ensued. Sandmann was interviewed, as was Phillips. Pundits weighed in and editorialists opined. The public shared its views and the Twitterverse was alive with chatter about this alleged confrontation between individuals presumed to be from different worlds.
Counsel volunteered to help Sandmann, who had been thrust into the public spotlight at an early age, to address the consequences of perceptions of his activity. As a result, multiple lawsuits have been filed against major media.
On July 26, 2019, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky dismissed Nicholas Sandmann’s complaint against the Washington Post with prejudice.
The federal district court has concluded that, as a matter of law, Sandmann had not stated a claim of defamation under Kentucky law.
The court enumerated the elements of defamation under state law and referred to Supreme Court precedent establishing that opinions on matters of public concern are not actionable without provably false factual statements. Opinion is fully constitutionally protected, and there can be no legal remedy for statements that cannot reasonably be seen to be stating facts. Milkovich v. Loraine Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990).
The court found that some statements in the seven articles published by the Washington Post were not specific to Sandmann, and were not identifiable to Sandmann, and thus were not actionable.
The court also found that statements made by Phillips that Sandmann “blocked” him from moving and that Phillips felt fear were statements of opinion which, n the absence of demonstrable underlying factual falsity, were not actionable.
Additionally, the court found the statements challenged were not defamatory. It is not enough,the court observed, that an allegedly defamatory statement is “annoying, offensive, or embarrassing.” (Op. at 11). The statements must expose the claimant to “public hatred, ridicule, contempt or disgrace,” or induce in others a bad opinion (Id.)
The court turned to the defamatory nature of the statements published, which Sanamann alleged indicated that he assaulted or intimidated Phillips, uttered taunts, or engaged in racist conduct. The court concluded that the published articles said no such things.
The court offered that, it analyzing the case as one of libel per se, the court was precluded from venturing beyond the plain meaning of what was actually published or to engage in explanation, enlargement or innuendo to add to the words allegedly libelous effect (Op. at 20-21).
Any consequences allegedly suffered by Sandmann– such as social media scorn — were without significance to the court, as extrinsic evidence would make the case one of libel per quod, which was not, in the court’s view, the claim before the court, which was one of libel per se.
A published account indicating that a public encounter was heated or tense would not be sufficient to meet the elements of defamation, nor would rhetorical headline hyperbole be found defamatory.
Phillips’ subjective account of his experience of fear was not defamatory nor could assigning political affiliation to Sandmann subject Sandmann to the sort of social contempt required for statements to be libelous per se. Neither Sandmann’s statement of his subjective intent nor Phillips’ description of his subjective emotional state are susceptible to objective verification. As such, these accounts cannot be actionable in defamation.
The court observed that shielding opinion from civil liability serves to protect First Amendment speech and press interests.
Prognostication: Impossible. As noted above, Sandmann’s case against the Washington Post is but one of several cases in which he seeks to recover for alleged harm suffered as a result of the media firestorm that ensued from his encounter with Phillips. If the decision here is any indication, subsequent cases may be intensively fact driven. Whether the breadth of construction of statements of perception such as “blocked,” which is arguably a verifiable and measurable matter, will be accorded in other cases remains to be seen. Of equal significance is whether other cases will be limited to consideration of libel per se.