The family of Nick Sandmann, the student wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat who was involved in a viral encounter with an Indigenous elder at the Lincoln Memorial in January, has sued CNN for defamation. The lawsuit follows a similar one the Sandmanns filed against the Washington Post last month. Their attorney says they’re planning to go after more media outlets such as the Associated Press and personalities such as Bill Maher over their reporting of the incident.
The Sandmann family is seeking $275 million in damages on behalf of the 16-year-old, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday. (In the suit against the Post, they are asking for $250 million.) The lawsuit alleges "CNN brought down the full force of its corporate power, influence, and wealth on Nicholas by falsely attacking, vilifying, and bullying him despite the fact that he was a minor child."
In mid-January, the teen emerged as a central figure in a viral incident between students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School, which he attends, and Indigenous activist Nathan Phillips. The students went to Washington, D.C., to attend the anti-abortion March for Life. Meanwhile, Phillips was attending the Indigenous Peoples March, which was held on the same day.
A short clip of the encounter went viral because it showed the group of teens, some wearing MAGA hats like Nick, seemingly surrounding a much smaller group of Indigenous protesters and making fun of Phillips specifically, who was singing and beating a drum. In the following days, as more information and videos emerged, the students said they were being harassed by members of the fringe Black Israelite movement, who were also in the area. The teens, including Nick, said that they met Phillips and his companions as they were defending themselves from the Black Israelites. An investigation commissioned by the Diocese of Covington and conducted by an independent firm cleared the students of any wrongdoing. Regardless, the incident led to a heated debate across the nation over the issues of privilege, free speech, and the media’s responsibility in how the incident was portrayed.
Defamation cases can be tough to win because the standard to be met by the plaintiff — in this case, that media outlets showed a "reckless disregard for the truth" — is difficult to prove. It’s unclear if the family will also sue organizations other than the Post and CNN, which also happen to be two of President Donald Trump’s favorite punching bags. But the Sandmanns seem to be confident, however, in the strength of their cases: The family’s legal team sent preservation letters, i.e. warnings that a lawsuit might come, to over 50 news outlets, celebrities, and elected officials including the New York Times, actor Jim Carrey, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
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