Nicholas Sandmann, a 16-year-old student who attended Covington High School in Kentucky, participated in a trip to Washington DC with some of his fellow students to look at historical sites. Many of the students had purchased red “Make America Great Again” (“MAGA) hats to express their conservative views and on January 18th of this year, the group found themselves at the Lincoln Memorial.
Just before arriving at the Lincoln site, the group had been confronted by a militant and foul-mouthed group identified as the black-hebrew-israelites.
According to Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder, and advocate, he witnessed the interactions between the Covington group and the Black Hebrew Israelites. Fearing that matters might escalate, he approached the predominantly white group and stood face-to-face with Sandmann while beating his drum.
The events were captured on social media and went viral. Major news outlets, including CNN and the Washington Post, rushed to publish the videos and comment on them. Sandmann has sued the two entities claiming that he has been defamed by them The theme of his claim is the defendants conveyed the message that Sandmann was the “face of an unruly hate mob of hundreds of white racist high school students who physically assaulted, harassed, and taunted two different minority groups engaged in peaceful demonstrations, preaching, song, and prayer.”
OUR FREE OPINION
This is a standard defamation lawsuit governed by the clear precedent established by the United States Supreme Court. Whether the plaintiff prevails will depend on a major determination: Was Sandmann a “public” or “private” person at the time? The plaintiff will argue that he was a private figure. The news outlets will maintain that he thrust himself “to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.”
If Sandmann is deemed to be a public figure, he will have to show that the defendants published false stories and they did so with malice. If he is determined to be a private individual, he will be required to demonstrate that the posted content was false.
New York Times v. Sullivan is the primary case dealing with public and private figures and the application of the “malice” standard to public figures. The case has been tweaked by subsequent decisions; however, the basic tenets remain law. The court wrote the following:
“The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with “actual malice” – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
“The constitutional protection does not turn upon “the truth, popularity, or social utility of the ideas and beliefs which are offered.”
“Whatever is added to the field of libel is taken from the field of free debate.”
This privilege extends to a great variety of subjects, and includes matters of public concern, public men, and candidates for office.”
Under the alleged facts of this case, we believe the plaintiff will be deemed a public figure, and he will not prevail in his lawsuits.