A federal judge on Friday dismissed a $250 million lawsuit against The Washington Post from the attorneys of Nick Sandmann, the MAGA hat-wearing teen captured in a viral video with Native American activist Nathan Phillips in January.
A student at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, Sandmann was part of a group of teens filmed surrounding Phillips while he performed an American Indian Movement song on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial early this year.
In interviews following the incident, Phillips claimed Sandmann and the other students swarmed him as he was trying to prevent potential violence between the teens and a group identified as Hebrew Israelites.
In a story titled “‘It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens,” Phillips told the Post that Sandmann stood in his way as he looked for an exit route.
“It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’” Phillips recalled in the story. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat [Sandmann] stood in my way, and we were at an impasse.”
Sandmann later disputed Phillips’ account and claimed that he, too, had been trying to defuse a potentially volatile situation. In February, the student’s lawyers Lin Wood and Todd McMurtry argued in a lawsuit that the Post “wrongfully targeted and bullied” Sandmann “because he was the white, Catholic student wearing a red ‘Make America Great Again’ souvenir cap.”
But in his ruling on Friday, U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman wrote that the lawsuit’s claims are “not supported by the plain language in the article.”
“The Court accepts Sandmann’s statement that, when he was standing motionless in the confrontation with Phillips, his intent was to calm the situation and not to impede or block anyone,” Bertelsman wrote.
The judge continued: “However, Phillips did not see it that way. He concluded that he was being ‘blocked’ and not allowed to ‘retreat.’ He passed these conclusions on to The Post. They may have been erroneous, but ... they are opinion protected by the First Amendment.”
Many major news outlets, including HuffPost, covered the viral incident, which occurred during the first Indigenous Peoples March. Sandmann’s lawyers filed a separate suit against CNN in March for $275 million in damages over its coverage of the incident.