WASHINGTON — The way videos quickly spread on social media showing an incident involving Covington Catholic High School students and a Native American activist over the weekend "put at risk" "our rights as Americans," U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday.
McConnell, of Kentucky, made the remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, blaming the viral videos on "the rush for headlines" and saying they were taken without "any shred of context."
On Saturday, two clips spread showing a group of CovCath students encountering Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips, showing the teenagers chanting along with Phillips' drum beat and making a motion similar to the "tomahawk chop" used by fans of some sports teams with Native American mascots. Much of the initial online criticism accused the students of mocking Phillips and claimed they acted in a racist way, and some criticism focused on the "Make America great again" hats worn by some of the students, including CovCath junior Nick Sandmann, who was shown standing face-to-face with Phillips in one clip. In an interview that aired on the "Today" show Wednesday, Sandmann denied that he and his classmates are racist and said he "wanted the situation to die down" when he encountered Phillips.
"Some prominent figures even used this pile-on to propose curtailing the First Amendment for groups with whom they disagreed, even targeting the students' hats," McConnell said. "How quickly some seem to forget why the Framers insisted on those protections in the first place."
But more videos began to surface, and others criticized the people who had been criticizing the CovCath students, saying Phillips was to blame for approaching the teenagers. Phillips later told The Washington Post he was attempting to intervene between the students and a group of street preachers who were shouting inflammatory statements at the teenagers and the Native American demonstrators.
"In a matter of hours, these students were tried, convicted, and sentenced by the media where accuracy is irrelevant and the presumption of innocence does not exist," McConnell said. "To their credit, some apologized for their commentary upon learning more. But by that point, too much damage had already been done."
Still more videos continued to circulate online this week, with the posters online purporting that they showed the CovCath students shouting at women before their encounter with the street preachers and Native American demonstrators. It wasn't immediately clear which of the videos McConnell was aware of when he made the comments.
CovCath was closed Tuesday after Park Hills police said there had been threats against the school. The school reopened Wednesday under increased security. McConnell said "it's unclear when any sense of normalcy might return."
"This time, it’s families in my home state who are paying the price for exercising their freedoms," the senator said. "Sadly, this kind of fact-free rush to judgement is becoming an all-too-common occurrence."