Tort Law and Fake News

Photo of high school student at March for Life 2019This Friday, January 24, 2020, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in Washington D.C. for the 47th annual March for Life. This year’s theme for the March for Life is “Pro-Life is Pro-Woman.” Last year’s March for Life invited additional news coverage thanks to a video that depicted Nick Sandmann, a high school student, smiling at a Native American elder as the elder beat a drum in front of the student. This initial video made it seem as if the student was mocking the elder. In the wake of this viral video and the news coverage that ensued, there was an immense backlash against the student and his high school. I recall seeing posts on social media listing the email addresses of the school’s administrators encouraging people to flood their inboxes with less than courteous emails expressing disapproval of their student’s behavior.

However, later video evidence revealed that a group of Black Hebrew Israelites had been yelling racial slurs at Sandmann and his peers, and that the Native American elder approached Sandmann as a way of diffusing the situation between the Black Hebrew Israelites and the students. Moreover, it became clear that neither Sandmann nor his peers were at fault in the confrontation.

Sandmann filed a defamation suit against CNN seeking $250 million dollars for its inaccurate coverage of the confrontation and the emotional distress that he endured as a result. Earlier this month it was released that Sandmann had agreed to a settlement with CNN for an undisclosed amount. Sandmann’s attorney told Fox News that similar suits against “as many as 13 other defendants will be filed in 30 to 40 days” relating to the inaccurate coverage of Sandmann and the Native American elder.

Although the dollar amount the parties agreed to in the settlement is unknown, I must confess that the initial $250 million dollar figure seemed high to me at first. However, upon further reflection, I considered this situation from a public policy perspective. In a world where “fake news” has become a part of our vocabulary, ought someone be taking steps to redirect news coverage to focus on facts? Perhaps Sandmann’s suits against CNN and other major news outlets will set a precedent that “fake news” is not acceptable. If that were to be a result of these cases, then I believe society would be better off.

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