Supreme Court rejects MAGA teen's defamation lawsuit

In 2019, a viral video captured an encounter between Nicholas Sandmann, a Kentucky high school student wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, and Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. As reported by USA Today, "A video of Sandmann, then 16 and a student at Covington Catholic in Northern Kentucky, standing nose to nose with Phillips went viral and unleashed a firestorm of internet criticism that the student's conduct was racially motivated, which Sandmann denied."

In response, Sandmann filed defamation lawsuits against several media organizations, including Rolling Stone, CBS, ABC, The New York Times, and Gannett, seeking a total of $1.25 billion in damages. The lawsuits claimed that the media's coverage unfairly portrayed Sandmann as the aggressor and mischaracterized the incident.

However, a federal judge in Kentucky dismissed the suit in 2022, ruling that Phillips' statement about Sandmann blocking his path was a matter of opinion and not grounds for a defamation claim. U.S. Senior Judge William Bertelsman wrote in his dismissal, "The media defendants were covering a matter of great public interest, and they reported Phillips's first-person view of what he experienced."

Sandmann's legal team petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that the case exemplified "cancel culture" and that the media had carelessly reported Phillips' account without proper investigation. Sandmann's lawyer claimed that he was transformed "from a quiet, anonymous teenager into a national social pariah, one whose embarrassed smile in response to Phillips' aggression became a target for anger and hatred."

Despite the case becoming a rallying point for conservatives, including support from then-President Trump, who claimed that Sandmann and his fellow students had been "smeared" with false reports by the media, the Supreme Court declined to hear Sandmann's appeal, leaving the lower court's dismissal in place.