Two weeks from now, thousands of pro-life teenagers will converge on the nation’s capital to rally in support of the unborn at the 47th annual March for Life.
Unfortunately, many people are uncomfortable with the idea that millennials would raise their voices to oppose abortion. The image of young kids standing together with signs that read “Choose Life” and “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart” can be disconcerting when you are used to hearing it’s only old white men who want to strip women of the “right to choose.”
That’s the only explanation I have for what some people did to a young Catholic student from Kentucky last year, when he and his classmates from Covington Catholic High attended the March for Life. As a bunch of them waited for their bus to pick them up, a Native American activist named Nathan Phillips approached banging his drum. Some of the boys reacted chanting their school song while one of them, Nicholas Sandmann, stood face to face with Phillips. The boy was smiling, although many characterized his expression as a “smirk.” The screen shot of that encounter went viral, and was used to attack Sandmann as a bigoted, privileged white boy who was mocking both ethnic minorities and a woman’s “right to choose.”
Now Sandmann has finally gotten some vindication via a settlement announced this week with CNN, whom Sandmann sued for defamation — and was just one of many outlets and public figures who took shots at the teen.
One of the most offensive comments was from U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who incorrectly tweeted “The boys were protesting a woman’s right to choose & yelled ‘it’s not rape if you enjoy it.” She later deleted the tweet.
Maggie Haberman of The New York Times observed that “There are dozens of students laughing and egging on the behavior. Will be interesting to see if anyone is actually expelled, as officials suggest is possible,” creating the false impression that the Catholic high school students were the aggressors.
HBO host Bill Maher called Sandmann a word normally used to describe a man’s sexual organ.
The Washington Post came out with an initial story that falsely claimed the Covington Catholic students, some of whom were wore MAGA hats, chanted “Build that wall” without any audio or video corroboration.
Some of the worst offenders were affiliated with CNN. Bakari Sellers, a regular contributor tweeted, “[Sandmann] is a deplorable. Some ppl can also be punched in the face.” Reza Aslan, another personality who also appeared on CNN, picked up the assault theme by tweeting “Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” (He reportedly only deleted that tweet this past week.) Conservative commentator S.E. Cupp, who hosts a CNN show called Unflitered, tweeted “Teens in MAGA gear mock a Native American Vietnam vet.” She later walked that back and apologized, but the damage was done.
Because of the overwrought, under-researched comments from many in the public eye, Sandmann and his family were subjected to months of harassment. His family had to leave their house for a time, they received death threats, and he was told not to come back to school in the days immediately after the incident. Even a Kentucky Catholic diocese initially condemned Sandmann.
In response, his family filed a defamation lawsuit against numerous media outlets including CNN and The Washington Post. CNN settled for an undisclosed amount, and The Post case is ongoing.
As an attorney, I know settlements are not a legal admission of guilt. But as a human being who understands it is natural to defend yourself when you think you are right, I’m convinced CNN believed it would lose where it counts the most: the court of public opinion.
Journalists can be heard wailing these days about assaults on the press. I think it is important, though, to examine those cases where they themselves are the assailants. This is one.
Based on incomplete facts and in a desire to get the story out as quickly as possible, some very powerful media outlets defamed a young boy, and created an environment where he was threatened.
I am convinced this was, in large part, because he was a young white man with pro-life beliefs.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Email her at email@example.com.