Nick Sandmann, Who We Were Told Would Be Rich Beyond Belief From All The Media Companies He Sued, Loses Basically All Of His Cases
from the well,-look-at-that dept
A while back, we noted that there was something of a Rorschach test in how you viewed basically everything about Nick Sandmann, the MAGA-hat wearing high school student who became front page news after a video of him standing in front of a Native American demonstrator, Nathan Phillips, went viral. Everyone had their own interpretations. Context was often lacking. People’s personal beliefs may have clouded their own interpretations — across the board. But, as we noted, people’s own interpretations of what they saw… just is not defamatory. But Nick Sandmann sued anyway. He sued a whole bunch of media companies. And his fans (generally those in the Trump world), insisted he was going to end up owning these companies.
It’s still not entirely clear why, but two of the companies, the Washington Post and CNN chose to settle the lawsuits. Considering a court had initially dismissed the WaPo suit, and only reinstated it on very narrow grounds (that still seemed unlikely to win), and the fact that the lawsuit against CNN was on shaky ground as well, basically anyone with any experience with defamation law assumed that the settlement was at what’s generally known as “nuisance fee” levels: a pittance — less than it would cost to pay the lawyers to win the suit, just to make the kid and his lawyers go away. Of course, his fans ridiculously assumed that the settlement meant he got the full hundreds of millions he sued over. And some very ignorant media folks implied something similar. But, almost everyone agrees that Sandmann probably got in the low to mid-five figures. Not bad for a student, but not exactly lifechanging either.
Indeed, Sandmann’s former lawyer (who he eventually fired) more or less gave away the fact that the settlements were nuisance fees when he threatened to sue CNN on air talent for merely speculating that the amounts were tiny nuisance fees (around $25k) — arguing that their speculation broke the confidentiality agreement in the settlement. If he’d actually made $250 million like some people thought, speculating that the amount was $25k… wouldn’t have broken any confidentiality agreement, because it wasn’t the confidential amount. The only way that speculation could possibly be tied to the agreement was… if the amount basically was $25k.
So, yeah, the WaPo and CNN caved in and settled. Probably because it was cheaper to do so. But, of course, that also highlights how both of them are willing to settle clearly bogus defamation lawsuits, which isn’t great.
And… it’s looking like an even more terrible decision to settle now that basically all of the other Sandmann lawsuits against media orgs got dismissed, fairly easily, in one fell swoop.
Now, there is an oddity in this case that is worth highlighting: even though the lawsuits are against media companies, they’re actually over a statement made by Phillips, claiming that Sandmann blocked his way. This was the only statement that the judge reinstated in the WaPo case, and which the court allowed to remain in all the other cases. This was because this was the only statement that might possibly be factual, if there were some evidence to back it up — so discovery was allowed on that point alone.
The court details the procedural history of the cases, including the WaPo and CNN settlements, how a bunch of other media orgs (NY Times, CBS, ABC, Gannett, and Rolling Stone) were sued as well, and how that very limited discovery was allowed. There was a deposition of Sandmann, which even the court notes “contains relatively little testimony pertinent to the issue at hand.” And then declarations from from Phillips and some other witnesses on the day of the confrontation.
It doesn’t sound like any of these actually mattered all that much. There were also twenty different videos of the events of the day that were submitted — a reminder of how that same event was viewed from so many different perspectives (literally and figuratively).
The court then more or less telegraphs what it is thinking regarding all of this:
In the Court’s view, six of the videos show the specific encounter between Sandmann and Phillips in helpful respects. What a viewer might conclude from these videos is a matter of perspective.
A matter of perspective is… not defamatory.
Then we get to the analysis and… as lots of us predicted on the very day Sandmann started suing, it does not go well for Sandmann. Sandmann’s lawyers tried to get around the kinda important question of whether or not the statements he was suing over were statements of fact (which could potentially be defamatory) or statements of opinion (which cannot). He argued that the “law of the case” doctrine prevented the court from considering that issue, which the court rightly pointed out is utter nonsense.
Sandmann first argues that the Court cannot now consider the fact-or-opinion issue because of the law of the case doctrine. This argument is without merit.
After explaining why it has no merit (which is not worth going into in this post, but suffice it to say that “law of the case” doctrine makes no sense here, because it’s about issues that are already settled and the court had explicitly said that these issues were not settled and would be revisited at this stage of the case), the court also notes that it’s particularly ridiculous for Sandmann to argue that this was a settled issue when…
Finally, Sandmann’s insistence that the Court cannot now revisit this legal issue is ironic considering that he vigorously, and successfully, moved the Court to reconsider its initial ruling in The Post case.
Then we move on to the main show: were the statements factual? Or were they opinion — and thus categorically not defamation. The key statement at issue were Phillips’ claim that Sandmann “just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”
The court notes that this is, clearly, Phillips opinion of the situation at hand:
Instead, a reasonable reader would understand that Phillips was simply conveying his view of the situation. And because the reader knew from the articles that this encounter occurred at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, he or she would know that the confrontation occurred in an expansive area such that it would be difficult to know what might constitute “blocking” another person in that setting.
Generally, “blocking” is an imprecise term capable of different meanings that “lacks a plausible method of verification.” Croce, 843 F. App’x at 715 (citation omitted). In particular, because of the context in which this encounter occurred—the large, open area adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial— the blocking statement simply cannot be proven to be either true or false. Had such an encounter occurred in a small or confined area, a statement that one person was “blocked” by another might be objectively verifiable. But it is not here.
The judge then continues to kick an already dead Sandmann argument:
Interestingly, plaintiff’s responsive memorandum to the joint motion for summary judgment argues that “blocking” is factual because “it involves the oppositional position of two human bodies in a confined space.” (Case No. 20cv23, Doc. 61 at 42) (emphasis added). But, as the videos depict, the area where this encounter occurred was a huge, outdoor setting, not a confined space.
The court goes on to note that since Phillips is conveying his own view of Sandmann’s state of mind, it’s obvious that he’s not conveying facts, but rather his opinion of the situation. Sandmann’s own depositions more or less sinks his argument here. From a footnote in the ruling:
Sandmann’s own deposition testimony illustrates the unverifiability of someone’s state of mind. Sandmann was asked whether it was possible “that Phillips was trying to see if you guys [Sandmann and his friend, Cameron] would both move to create a path for him to go towards what would now be where you are standing?” (Sandmann Dep. at 238:1–6). This of course required Sandmann to speculate and prompted him to answer “It’s possible he was thinking that. Again, he never made that clear.” (Id. at 238:12–13). He was then asked if this was because “he [Phillips] didn’t articulate it?” (Id. at 238:15–16). To which he responded “Correct.” (Id. at 238:17). Phillips’s intent in that moment is not objectively verifiable, the same way Sandmann’s intent in that moment is not objectively verifiable. The Court must look at the meaning of the statements when they were made, without reference to post hoc explanations.
And, since speculation on someone else’s state of mind is incapable of being proven true or false, it cannot be a statement of fact… and therefore cannot be defamatory.
The fact that the media orgs being sued reported on Phillips’ statements doesn’t magically make it defamatory:
The media defendants were covering a matter of great public interest, and they reported Phillips’s first-person view of what he experienced. This would put the reader on notice that Phillips was simply giving his perspective on the incident.
Therefore, in the factual context of this case, Phillips’s “blocking” statements are protected opinions. This holding moots all other motions before the Court.
Again, it seemed quite obvious that this was going to be the eventual outcome of the case to anyone with even a modest level of experience with defamation cases. The WaPo and CNN settlements were likely because the nuisance fees of paying him off were even less costly than going through with the minimal discovery that occurred. But if they had gone through with it, as this ruling makes clear, the case would have been dismissed. There was no defamation there.
And it doesn’t look like Nick Sandmann is going to be owning CNN any time soon.