CNN has settled a defamation lawsuit brought by the family of a Covington, Kentucky teenager in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Kentucky Northern Division at Covington. Filed in March 2019, the lawsuit originally requested $275 million in damages.
CNN confirmed that a settlement had been reached, but did not offer more details.
Nicholas Sandmann became the subject of national attention after a filmed encounter between him and a Native American activist went viral online. The short video depicted a smiling Sandmann in a “Make American Great Again” hat, standing face-to-face with indigenous activist Nathan Philips.
Early reporting by CNN and other media outlets said that Sandmann had purposely blocked the activist’s way, and that Sandmann and his classmates had ridiculed and intimidated the Native American. Later, a second video emerged that painted a more complicated picture of the events. It showed that the Covington Catholic students had been responding to taunts by a third group, who call themselves Black Hebrew Israelites.
The resulting controversy highlighted a tendency among people on social media to make quick judgments without the full context of a story.
In a TV interview with Today, Sandmann, who was 16 years-old at the time of the encounter, said that he was “not disrespectful to Mr. Philips” and that he had gotten many hateful messages as a result of the video.
In the complaint against CNN, Sandmann’s lawyers claim that the company “brought down the full force of its corporate power, influence, and wealth on Sandmann by falsely attacking, vilifying, and bullying him despite the fact that he was a minor child.” The lawyers cite two broadcast comments (1,2) and nine articles as evidence.
“CNN falsely asserted that Nicholas and his CovCath classmates were in a ‘racis[t]’ ‘mob mentality’ and ‘looked like they were going to lynch’ the Black Hebrew Israelites who were merely ‘preaching about the Bible nearby’ ‘because they didn’t like the color of their skin’ and ‘their religious views,’ and that Nicholas and his classmates then ‘surrounded’ one of the Native Americans, 64-year old Nathan Phillips, creating ‘a really dangerous situation’ during which Nicholas ‘blocked [Philips’] escape’ when Phillips tried ‘to leave’ the mob, causing Phillips to ‘fear for his safety and the safety of those with him,’ while Nicholas and his classmates ‘harassed and taunted’ him,” the complaint argues.
The complaint also alleges that CNN specifically targeted Nicholas because he was a supporter of President Donald Trump, and the president has “publicly and repeatedly branded CNN as the poster child of ‘fake news’.”
“CNN has maintained a well-known and easily documented biased agenda against President Trump and established a history of impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the president,” the complaint said.
As a private citizen, the standard for proving defamation is lower than it would have been had Sandmann been a public official or figure. The level of fault requirement in a defamation suit involving private individuals varies by state, though all states require proving at least negligence or carelessness.
Sandmann’s family has also filed defamation lawsuits against The Washington Post, NBC News, and twelve individuals for allegedly defamatory statements. In October 2019, a federal judge partially reinstated the suit against The Washington Post after originally dismissing the case on First Amendment grounds.