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Covington student’s lawyers warn dioceses of possible legal action

Students from Covington Catholic High School, Kentucky, and Nathan Phillips (CNS)

The letters urge recipients not to destroy any documents in connection with the case

Two weeks after the much-talked about and interpreted incident that occurred between Catholic high school students, a Native American tribal leader and members of another protest group, lawyers for one of the students sent more than 50 letters to media outlets, individual journalists, celebrities and Catholic dioceses warning of possible legal action.

The letters – from the lawyers for Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann, the student most prominent in viral footage of the January 18 encounter in Washington – were sent to individuals and groups the attorneys think may have defamed or libeled Sandmann particularly in the initial reaction on social media.

The incident occurred when students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School, who had attended the March for Life, were waiting for buses to pick them up near the Lincoln Memorial.

In clips from a video that went viral almost immediately, students were shown surrounding Nathan Phillips, tribal elder for the Omaha Tribe, who was chanting and beating a drum. The students appeared to be mocking him. Sandmann, inches away from the drummer, who never moved and was smiling, was accused of flagrant disrespect.

The clip caused immediate outrage, particularly on social media.

By the next day, extended footage of how the situation unfolded revealed that another group at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial had taunted the students and some responded back. Phillips had walked over to the students and the group, as an intervention, singing and beating a song of prayer.

After the initial viral video, some of the high school students issued their own statements about the situation, including Sandmann, who said he did not move because he wanted to show he wasn’t being aggressive. The school announced there would be a third-party investigation into what occurred.

But the wave of initial outrage against the students triggered the legal response. Sandmann’s attorneys said that members of the media and others “rushed to condemn and vilify this young man by burying him in an avalanche of false accusations, false portrayals and cyberbullying that have threatened his reputation and his physical safety.”

According to news reports, the attorneys’ letters sent to more than 50 recipients urge them not to destroy any documents in connection with the case.

The lawyers representing Sandmann and his family are Todd McMurtry of the Covington-based law firm Hemmer Defrank Wessels, and L. Lin Wood, an Atlanta attorney involved in high-profile defamation suits.

The list of letter recipients includes The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and National Public Radio along with the Kentucky dioceses of Covington and Lexington and the archdioceses of Louisville, Kentucky, and Baltimore. Only the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Lexington immediately responded to CNS about the letter.

McMurty confirmed that these dioceses and archdioceses were sent “a document preservation letter.” He told CNS that the letter “does not mean that a claim will be filed, but only that the Sandmann family is investigating potential claims.”

Douglas Culp, spokesman for the Diocese of Lexington, and Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, confirmed that the diocese and archdiocese had received the letter but both declined to comment about it.

The Baltimore Archdiocese tweeted about the incident on January 20, without naming the student or school, saying it “condemns the disrespect shown toward a Native American elder during the March for Life. Respect for life demands all are treated with dignity.”

That tweet came after Covington Catholic High School and the Diocese of Covington issued a joint statement saying they condemned the students’ actions “toward Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general.”

March for Life president Jeanne Mancini also issued a statement that same day saying the encounter did not represent her organization or “the vast majority of the marchers” and that the students’ behavior is not welcome at the march and never will be.

The next day, March for Life said in a tweet it had deleted its original tweet about the students “given recent developments.”

The Baltimore Archdiocese similarly issued a retraction later on January 20, saying that school authorities and parents would get to the bottom of this complex situation. And three days later, an archdiocesan statement said “initial reports of that incident were at best incomplete. Those incomplete reports led many, including the Archdiocese of Baltimore, to speak out too hastily. We apologize for doing so.”

McMurtry, Sandmann’s attorney, told the Lexington Herald Leader that he will be demanding retractions and apologies in addition to possible litigation and that not all the organizations who were sent letters will necessarily be sued.

“We want to change the conversation. We don’t want this to happen again,” he told the daily newspaper, adding: “There was a rush by the media to believe what it wanted to believe versus what actually happened.”