Nick Sandmann was falsely accused of racially taunting and harassing a Native American activist while on a school trip to Washington in January.
Nick Sandmann was falsely accused of racially taunting and harassing a Native American activist while on a school trip to Washington in January.

‘MAGA teen’ lawsuits top $1 billion

A "MAGA hat"-wearing teen involved in a viral stand-off with a Native American activist is suing multiple media organisations for defamation in claims now exceeding $1 billion.

Lawyers for Nicholas Sandmann, a 16-year-old high school student from Covington, Kentucky, on Wednesday filed a defamation claim related to media coverage of the January incident against NBC Universal, owner of NBC and MSNBC.

The claim, filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, seeks $US275 million ($A392 million) in damages and comes after similar claims against The Washington Post and CNN seeking $US250 million ($A356 million) and $US275 million respectively.

That brings the total so far to $US800 million ($A1.14 billion).

"Today, Nicholas Sandmann sued NBC and MSNBC for defamation in federal court in Kentucky seeking accountability for false accusations," prominent defamation lawyer L. Lin Wood wrote on Twitter.

"Nicholas did not instigate a hate crime or engage in racist conduct."

NBC Universal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lawyers for The Washington Post last month filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit, arguing the claim was politically motivated "to strike a blow against the Post's allegedly 'biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump'."

Nicholas was on a school trip to Washington to attend a pro-life rally on January 18 when he was confronted by Nathan Phillips.

A short video clip of Nicholas smiling as the 64-year-old beats a drum in his face went viral online, with Mr Phillips claiming he had been surrounded by the teenagers as they racially harassed him and blocked his exit.

Longer video of the incident debunked those claims.

It showed Mr Phillips approaching the group of students as they waited for their bus. At the same time, the teens were being verbally abused by nearby members of the Black Hebrew Israelites hate group.

"NBC Universal attacked Nicholas by relying heavily on biased and unreliable sources without conducting any reasonable investigation of the circumstances surrounding the January 18 incident," the claim reads.

It alleges the Comcast-owned network's attacks on Nicholas included "at least 15 defamatory television broadcasts, six defamatory online articles, and many tweets falsely accusing Nicholas and his Covington Catholic High School classmates of racist acts".

"NBC Universal created a false narrative by portraying the 'confrontation' as a 'hate crime' committed by Nicholas," the claim says.

The network "refused to acknowledge" Nicholas did nothing wrong for more than a week following the incident, continuing to imply "and even outright state" he was "culpable for racist behaviour for which he should, at the very least, apologise".

 

Nick Sandmann interviewed on the Today show.
Nick Sandmann interviewed on the Today show.

 

 

"NBC Universal continued to promote its false narrative that Nicholas had instigated a racist confrontation with Phillips long after Phillips was exposed as a fraud whose version of events was not entitled to any credibility by responsible members of the media," the claim says.

Panels on NBC Universal talk shows were "created … to frame the incident as one involving a 'hate crime' and demonstrating 'white supremacy' as a result of 'whites' being 'emboldened' by President Trump's presence in the White House and repeated these premises over and over", the claim continues.

The claim argues that given the breadth of NBC Universal's media reach, its coverage "significantly contributed to a media frenzy that subjected Nicholas to public scorn, ridicule and serious threats of physical harm".

"More specifically, NBC Universal painted the false picture that Nicholas and his classmates were 'a big mob' that had 'surrounded these black kids', the Black Hebrew Israelites, with the two groups 'throwing back and forth racial taunts', and that 'it needed one little spark and that mob would have descended on those four guys and ripped them apart', and that Nicholas and his classmates then 'targeted' and 'surrounded' Phillips, causing Phillips to be 'scared' when he was 'harassed' and 'taunted' by Nicholas and his classmates, who committed a 'hate crime'."

The claim notes a number of other media organisations subsequently issued corrections, clarifications or apologies, but NBC Universal has failed to do so.

The action seeks compensatory damages in excess of $US75 million ($A106 million) for "perpetual reputational harm, emotional distress and mental anguish", along with punitive damages in excess of $US200 million ($A284 million) "in order to deter NBC Universal from ever again engaging in false, reckless, malicious and agenda-driven attacks against children".

The $US275 million demand represents 2.344 per cent of Comcast's $US11.731 billion ($A16.7 billion) net income last year.

In Australia, the ABC has to date refused to apologise or issue a correction for a News Breakfast segment on January 21 in which journalist Sara James discussed the incident with hosts Lisa Millar and Michael Rowland.

"I should point out that he is a veteran, he was a veteran of Vietnam, the Vietnam War," James said, incorrectly - Mr Phillips is not a Vietnam War veteran.

"So, this has gone viral, the school has said that they will look into it and that many options are on the table including expulsion," James continued.

Millar said, "It's this shot here that bothers me the most, I think. That, you know, he's sort of staring in his (Phillips') face trying to - it would appear that he is trying to intimidate."

Rowland added, "And it's pure hate. There are no other ways around it."

Millar said it was "all on the backdrop of two years since President Trump was inaugurated", with James adding it was "two years where immigration has been the signature issue for this President and this presidency, so, I think that that is the connection and it will roll on".

"You know where I'd build a wall, Sarah?" Rowland said. "Right around that college. Stop those kids getting out into the public."

In an email to media commentator Gerard Henderson the following month, News Breakfast producer Emily Butselaar insisted no correction was necessary.

"The discussion fell well short of a factual statement (and) was clearly an interpretation of an ambiguous incident," she wrote.

An ABC spokeswoman said today, "We don't have anything further to add on this."

 

frank.chung@news.com.au