New lawsuit filed over Academic Magnet watermelon controversy

Another Academic Magnet High School football player is asserting his reputation was damaged by characterizations last year of the team’s controversial watermelon ritual as racially motivated.

The student is suing the Charleston County School District, diversity consultant Kevin Clayton and his firm Axxis Consulting Co., and Jones Street Publishers LLC, parent company of the Charleston City Paper. The football player is only identified in the lawsuit by his initials A.E.P. III.

Attorney John Parker of Hampton County confirmed the student was on the magnet school’s football team last fall but did not identify him by his full name. Parker said the player, who recently turned 18, is suing on the grounds of defamation.

The lawsuit, filed April 27 in the Court of Common Pleas, is seeking unspecified actual damages against all of the defendants as well as punitive damages from Clayton, Axxis Consulting and Jones Street Publishers.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of four nearly identical suits filed by Parker on behalf of Academic Magnet football players or parents of football players claiming they were defamed by school officials and media descriptions of the team’s postgame victory ritual of chanting and smashing watermelons. Football player Adam Olsen Ackerman filed a lawsuit in February and Richard and Cheryl Nelson filed a lawsuit on behalf of their son in January. Betty and James R. Moore Jr., Amy and Lee Garrard, and Dean and Kathryn Frailey filed a joint lawsuit in December claiming their children were defamed.

Parker also represents Academic Magnet Coach Eugene “Bud” Walpole in a fifth lawsuit which hinges on characterizations of the coach’s knowledge of and involvement in the team’s behavior.

At the heart of the lawsuits is the school district’s investigation last fall into the football team’s postgame victory ritual of chanting and smashing watermelons with caricature faces drawn on them, which some saw as an offensive racial stereotype demeaning to African-Americans. Walpole was initially fired as head football coach but was rehired days later by former Superintendent Nancy McGinley after players and parents rallied in his defense. McGinley, who is not named as a defendant, resigned as superintendent in the wake of the controversy.

All of the lawsuits assert that Clayton, a former diversity consultant for the school district, and Associate Superintendent Lou Martin, who is not named as a defendant, “falsely published to others that the football team made animal sounds and drew a monkey face on the watermelon during these celebrations,” even though an investigation by the pair revealed “no evidence of any racial reason” for the team’s ritual. McGinley, according to the lawsuit, later described the team as making noises characterized as “monkey sounds” to the media.

Those descriptions falsely depicted the football team as racists, the lawsuit said.

One article published in the Nov. 5 edition of The Charleston City Paper entitled “Mob Rules” outlined the series of events surrounding the team’s ritual that “when read as a whole, falsely accuses the football team and the plaintiffs of being racist.” The publication of those statements, according to the lawsuit, “injured the plaintiffs’ reputations.”

School district spokeswoman Erica Taylor said the district doesn’t comment on pending litigation. But the district, in court filings for all but the most recent lawsuit, denied any wrongdoing or claims of defamation, saying “any comments made by them were fair comments on a matter of public concern.”

Clayton, in court filings for three of the lawsuits, denied publishing anything written or orally to third parties outside the school district regarding the findings of his investigation into the team’s actions. The court documents acknowledge Clayton’s characterization of the team’s actions “to the extent the plaintiffs assert that the students and coaches indicated that they were acting in a racially derogatory manner regarding the postgame ritual of drawing a curly-headed caricature on watermelons that were smashed by the players.”

Clayton’s attorney, Stephan Futeral, said he has requested that the plaintiffs provide proof of the alleged statements and that, to date, no such proof has been offered to substantiate those claims. If no proof is produced, Futeral said he plans to file motions to dismiss the lawsuits.

Attorneys for The Charleston City Paper have filed motions to dismiss all but the April 27 suit on the grounds that all descriptions of the team’s behavior mentioned in the editorial were “merely restatements of the public comments of school district officials concerning the watermelon controversy.”

To the extent the editorial went beyond factual statements, the paper, in the motions, contends they were an “expression of the editorial writer’s opinions, ideas and rhetorical commentary” protected by the First Amendment.

Those motions are pending before a judge. No court dates have been set in any of the lawsuits.