Federal Judge Dismisses Covington Catholic Students’ Defamation Suit

In this Jan. 20, 2019, file photo snow covers the grounds of Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky. (AP Photo/Lisa Cornwell)

(CN) — Defamation and harassment claims brought by students at Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School against CNN, the Washington Post and NBC were dismissed by a federal judge Wednesday after he found that none of the twelve plaintiffs had been defamed or unlawfully threatened.

The suit stems from a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial in January of 2019 during the annual March for Life, and followed on the heels of CNN’s settlement with fellow student Nicholas Sandmann. 

Sandmann’s tense encounter with Native American activist Nathan Phillips at the march went viral, sparking widespread ire on social media from commenters who objected to the school group’s alleged chants of “Build the wall” and “It’s not rape if you enjoy it” — which the students say were fabricated — and to perceived disrespect of Phillips, a former Marine Corps reservist whom the complaint called a “phony war hero.” 

Phillips had previously claimed to have been a “Vietnam-era” veteran, and all three outlets reported that he served in the war there. 

The students, meanwhile, said that they started chanting school fight songs in response to taunts from a group of Black Hebrew Israelites — a religious group that believes African-Americans are descendants of the ancient Israelites, some of whom hold extreme anti-Semitic and Black supremacist views. Phillips faced down Sandmann while singing and playing a drum, Sandmann said, and made no effort to get around him.

The teen sued all three news outlets, but only CNN settled; Sandmann’s claims against the Post were dismissed in July and a few claims against NBC are still pending, all for statements saying that Sandmann blocked Phillips’ retreat from the Covington Catholic crowd.

Twelve more teens and their parents repeated Sandmann’s allegations in this lawsuit, and in another added claims against several Twitter commentators whose tweets about the teenagers went viral. 

U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman, who is also overseeing Sandmann’s suit, dismissed the claims against all three media outlets Wednesday after finding that none of the disputed statements specifically targeted any of the individual plaintiffs.

“Unlike Sandmann’s claims based statements Phillips made explicitly about Sandmann blocking him, Plaintiffs were among a larger group of students on the Lincoln Memorial steps that were never named,” Bertelsman wrote. 

The students’ argument that news coverage was still “of and concerning” them because some of them were pictured in photos accompanying stories, he wrote, was “also misguided” because they have not shown that they were particular subjects of the stories among over 100 students at the protest.

He also noted that several of the disputed statements were made by Phillips himself, making them subjective expressions of opinion and therefore nonactionable.

Bertelsman also dismissed privacy claims, noting that the events being discussed took place at the very public National Mall, and aiding-and-abetting claims, pointing out that the teens had not identified any party the media outlets were supposed to have aided or abetted in a crime.

The only tweet Bertelsman addressed in the order was a since-deleted one by Sellers, in which the analyst wrote that Sandmann was “a deplorable” and that “some [people] can also be punched in the face.” 

The tweet, Bertelsman said, was not directed directly at Sandmann or any other individual, and could not be read to place the plaintiffs in danger or fear of injury. He added that it was also protected by the First Amendment for similar reasons.

The students have also sued several other Twitter users for their tweets about the incident in state court, and Bertelsman dismissed another federal lawsuit against comedian Kathy Griffin in April.

Attorneys for both sides did not respond to requests for comment.

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