Sandmann Lawsuit Highlights Problems With Media Coverage In Digital Age

Published on January 13, 2020

A bizarre turn of events on social media in 2016 shows that social media presents a major liability risk for journalists and media outlets in the digital age. A viral video of Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann garnered major attention on social media from media industry professionals. Today, the legal interactions between the lawyers involved in the case has turned into its own legal problem—all through Twitter.

Two lawyers involved in the legal case have ignited their own feud on the social networking site after one of them alluded to representing Sandmann in a legal case. Sandmann, who is represented by Todd McMurtry, took to Twitter to ask Robert Barnes why he is misrepresenting himself as Sandmann’s representative without permission.

Media Companies At The Helm Of The Lawsuits

Barnes publicized in the past that he had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Covington Catholic High School students (listed merely as “John Doe’s 1-10) involved in the case after a CNN correspondent named Reza Aslan took to Twitter to say “Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” with a photo of Sandmann and his fellow classmates taken from the viral video.

The video, which garnered major attention on social media following an alleged misrepresentation from news outlets like CNN, portrays Sandmann and his classmates in “MAGA” hats. Sandmann, who is at the center of the controversy, is seen smiling at a native American named Nathan Phillips, in a video that was allegedly taken out of context by various news outlets to fuel a political discourse.

Sandmann and his classmates sued CNN over their coverage and the Tweets for as much as seven figures, claiming that the coverage defamed their character and misrepresented the situation in a way that put them at the helm of the political chopping block on social media. For the journalists involved in the story, the lawsuit represents a clear need to neutralize coverage that could vilify any one person—particularly if that person happens to be a minor.

Feuds Between Lawyers

The lawsuit between Sandmann and CNN was settled for an undisclosed amount that is reported to be in the seven figure range—though an exact number is unlikely to be publicized. Since then, however, the new lawsuit filed by Barnes claims that other figures—some including Elizabeth Warren and activist Sean King—have continued to defame Sandmann and the other Covington students. The only issue is Sandmann had no knowledge of the lawsuit, claiming that Barnes is misrepresenting himself as Sandmann’s lawyer without consent.

“Would you like to explain why you’re suing for me without my permission? You’ve blocked my lawyers on twitter and now claim you’re suing over the Reza Aslan tweet? Retract and stop lying to the public,” posted Sandmann on Twitter.

Barnes has since responded to the questions, claiming that he never represented himself as Sandmann’s legal representative, instead representing Sandmann’s fellow students in a blanket lawsuit. “All #CovingtonBoys I represent retain anonymity as John Does (Nick Sandmann, who went public, is not my client). The reason to protect their privacy is the threats they already faced. A key precedent we seek: you should not forfeit your privacy to sue for invasion of privacy,” said the lawyer on Twitter.

The legal battle has since caused a stir between Barnes and McMurtry, Sandmann’s actual lawyer in the CNN settlement. “Robert Barnes keeps trying to suggest he represents @N1ckSandmann. He does not. Barnes long ago blocked me, so I cannot ID him in this tweet,” writes McMurtry on his personal Twitter account.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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