The Rorshach Test Of The Covington Catholic Boy's DC Encounter Now Extends To Bogus Lawsuits And Confidential Settlements
from the everyone-sees-what-they-want-to-see dept
Buckle up folks, because this story takes a few twists and turns, and some of them may make you angry — though I hope people will hold back their kneejerk reactions, because that kind of thing is what created this mess in the first place.
As you probably recall, a year ago, there was a whole viral media shitstorm regarding an encounter in Washington DC between some kids from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, Native American activist Nathan Phillips, and a bunch of other people, including members of a group known as the Black Israelites, who appeared to be egging everyone on. A first video that made the viral rounds on Twitter just showed the encounter between CCH student Nick Sandmann, clad in a red MAGA hat, and staring down Phillips who was banging a drum. Later videos added in more context, including the Black Israelites and their role in the whole thing. One of the points a few people raised is that your interpretation of the whole thing is very much a Rorschach test for what you already believe. You can reasonably argue that people completely misrepresented the encounter and you can reasonably argue that they did not.
It is a subjective issue. You see it through your own context and experiences, and it comes down to each and everyone’s opinion. I’d personally argue that there was a little bit of truth in nearly all of the viewpoints, and not having the entire context is not akin to false statements, but rather simply not having the full picture. As more context was added, many people changed their views, and that’s cool too.
But given that these are subjective opinions, the idea that one might sue over them is simply batshit insane. And yet, people rushed to sue. In particular, we highlighted how the CCH student at the center of all of this sued the Washington Post, and later both NBC and CNN, for their coverage. Sandmann was represented by L. Lin Wood and Todd McMurtry. (For what it’s worth, Wood recently lost that high profile defamation case against Elon Musk on behalf of cave diver Vern Unsworth). We found little in the lawsuits to be compelling, and were not at all surprised when a judge tossed out the one against the Washington Post, noting that everything they published was protected by the 1st Amendment. However, that case has been reinstated on fairly narrow grounds, following an amended complaint that targets some very specific language used by the Post. I’d still be surprised if he won, but the more narrow claims do at least have slightly more validity to them, especially if the court agrees that Sandmann is not a public figure (which would lower the bar for a defamation claim).
Earlier this week, news broke that CNN and Sandmann had agreed to settle that complaint — and once again we had a bit of a Rorschach test. The terms of the settlement appear to be totally confidential, which is disappointing, but not at all uncommon. It is, in fact, possible that no money exchanged hands at all. However, many people who support Sandmann are insisting that this is vindication for him, even if that’s not at all clear. Some are even saying that CNN must have paid “in the millions.” Again, no information on the settlement is public, and to say that this was vindication or to speculate on any settlement amount seems ridiculous — especially given that the entire thrust of the lawsuit was about news media commenting on issues without knowing the full details or context of the story.
But the story then got even stranger. Because on Wednesday, PJ Media had a headline trumpeting that author Reza Aslan would “face the music” for tweeting that Sandmann had “a punchable face.” Already that should have raised alarm bells, because there is literally nothing at all defamatory in saying someone has “a punchable face.” PJ Media — who at times pretends to support free speech — acted as though this was a legitimate lawsuit. Of course, tellingly, even though they said they had a copy of the complaint, reporter Tyler O’Neil did not link to or publish the lawsuit. Perhaps because it’s utter and complete garbage. You can read it here.
It was actually filed last August. And here’s where we’ll go back a bit. Right after the original Sandmann incident, we had noted that infamously silly lawyer Robert Barnes, who has filed multiple trollish lawsuits that have flopped spectacularly, announced that he would represent any of the Covington kids pro bono in filing lawsuits.
Yet, you will note that Sandmann’s lawsuits were not filed with Barnes as his lawyer, but Lin Wood and Todd McMurtry. However, the lawsuit that PJ Media was trumpeting, about a comment on Sandmann, was filed by Barnes. So this lead to some head scratching. Had Sandmann retained both lawyers for different cases? The answer is no. Barnes simply filed lawsuits on behalf of the Covington kids as John Does.
It’s not even clear that any of the Covington kids are actual clients of his. They may be, but the filing doesn’t confirm that this is actually true. And the key Covington kid, Sandmann, has made it absolutely clear that he is not a Barnes’ client, and that this lawsuit is obviously bullshit — because with regards to Aslan’s statement, it only references Sandmann (and his allegedly “punchable face”) rather than any of the other Covington kids:
If you’re unable to see that image, it’s Sandmann asking Barnes on Twitter:
… would you like to explain why you?re suing for me without my permission? You?ve blocked my lawyers on twitter and now claim you?re suing over the Reza Aslan tweet? Retract and stop lying to the public.
Yes. Barnes can claim all he wants that he?s filed it on behalf of the covington kids but we both know that isn?t true. Reza?s tweet references only one kid, and i take up a majority of the picture. The article he even linked (now deleted) stated this.
It clearly states it?s about me in the title!
And we’re not done with the strangeness yet. The lawsuit itself was filed last August. So why was it making news now? Because Aslan just deleted that tweet. Why did he just delete that tweet now, a year later? Because Barnes only just now served Aslan:
It’s unclear why Aslan even bothered to delete the tweet, other than perhaps a kneejerk reaction upon being served. There’s nothing defamatory at all in what he said. The lawsuit itself is ridiculous. Beyond Aslan, there are a bunch of other plaintiffs who merely stated various opinions about Sandmann (mostly, rather than the supposed “John Does”). Aslan’s co-defendants include Elizabeth Warren, who tweeted “Omaha elder and Vietnam War veteran Nathan Phillips endured hateful taunts with dignity and strength, then urged us all to do better.” What’s defamatory about that? Barnes’ suit claims that she “omitted the true facts.” But that’s not how defamation works. Other defendants include NY Times reporter Maggie Haberman, ABC News commentator Matthew Dowd, Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery, historian Kevin Kruse and more. None of what any of them said was defamatory.
And, again, the entire lawsuit is completely laughable, and it’s not even clear who Barnes’ clients really are. Yet, when PJ Media (and Barnes) framed it in a way that suggested to people that the lawsuit against Aslan (who supposedly is going to “face the music”) was on behalf of Sandmann, the Rorschach test continued, with tons and tons of Sandmann’s supporters cheering on a nonsense lawsuit. Indeed, some of the commentators even appear to believe that the CNN settlement was done by Barnes:
It goes on like that for a lot longer, but you get the idea. Notice that basically all of them are doing exactly what Barnes and Sandmann/Wood/McMurtry are suing over: commenting enthusiastically about a story where they only know a small piece of the details, and possibly have the large crux of the situation wrong. Particularly silly is that many of those commenters egging on a completely bogus attack on free speech pretend to be “free speech supporters.”
And, of course, then Sandmann’s actual lawyer Lin Wood had to go on Twitter and demand that Barnes cease and “correct his prior false statements.” It includes what appears to be a threat to take legal action:
Again, here’s the text if you can’t view the screenshot:
Nicholas Sandmann has many legitimate defamation cases remaining for resolution through litigation. @ToddMcMurtry & I prefer to focus on those matters & not be forced to take legal action against another lawyer but Robert E. Barnes crosses line with his claims about Nicholas.
Barnes has been previously warned to stop publicly suggesting or stating that he represents Nicholas. In response, Barnes ?blocked? @ToddMcMurtry & me on Twitter. Barnes apparently cannot control his desire to garner publicity by falsely using Nicholas? name.
For those who can access @Barnes_Law & support his legal efforts for others, please remind him that he cannot ?block? a formal demand letter, a civil complaint, or an ethics complaint. I hope he finally gets the message.
If Barnes does not cease publishing & then correct his prior false statements, Nicholas? attorneys are fully prepared to take legal action against him. So Barnes can take the easy way out or he will get out the hard way – we will sue him. His choice.
Later, Wood (hilariously) claimed that Barnes is “on the right side of CovCath issue.” Which, uh, no.
But, once again, this is all a form of a Rorschach test, and everyone seems to view the story through their own particular prism — as did all of the initial commenters that Wood/Sandmann/Barnes/whoever are suing. And that’s why all of those lawsuits are such bullshit. People reacting to news is not defamation. People not having the full context is not defamation. People expressing their opinion, or explaining how they view things, is not defamation. And the people who have responded to all of the news this week are doing exactly the same thing they seem to think others should be sued over.
So, maybe, just maybe, the best thing here would be stop filing so many bullshit defamation lawsuits, and recognize that free speech sometimes includes speech we don’t like, and that includes people not fully understanding the context. But, of course, that’s not going to happen. Indeed, Sandmann’s other lawyer, Todd McMurtry has instead promised to get back to suing more people:
Filed Under: 1st amendment, cch, covington catholic high school, defamation, elizabeth warren, free speech, l. lin wood, lin wood, nathan phillips, nick sandmann, opinions, resa aslan, robert barnes, rorschach test, todd mcmurtry
Companies: cnn, nbc, washington post