A summary judgment has been issued in the defamation case brought by Coach Eugene "Bud" Walpole of Academic Magnet High School and members of his football team against the parent company of Charleston City Paper.
Former Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal has ruled in the Court of Common Pleas that reporting and editorials generated by Jones Street Publishers were protected by law and didn't defame the plaintiffs.
The lawsuits stem from the 2014 controversy over the Academic Magnet football team’s victory ritual, in which players chanted and smashed watermelons with faces painted on them. Players named several of the watermelons Bonds-Wilson, apparently referring to North Charleston’s black equalization school where Academic Magnet now stands.
The tradition, many argued, perpetuated racist stereotypes against blacks. Then-Superintendent Nancy McGinley fired Walpole and promptly rehired him after players and parents rallied to his defense.
The issue generated intense local and national attention and news coverage. Jones Street Publishers wrote a story and several opinion pieces that were critical of the team's decisions.
In December 2014, Walpole filed a lawsuit against Jones Street Publishers, Charleston County Schools, and Atlanta-based diversity consultant Kevin Clayton and his firm Axxis Consulting, claiming the defendants falsely depicted him as a racist in a news report and in opinion pieces. Academic Magnet football players and parents of football players filed four nearly identical defamation suits against the same defendants in Walpole’s suit, claiming characterizations of the team’s ritual damaged the players’ reputations.
The court held that the editorial was "merely paraphrasing summaries of public statements made by School District officials describing post-game rituals."
"The AMHS football team’s ritual, the school district’s investigation into the AMHS football team’s ritual, and Coach Walpole’s removal as head coach of the team were subjects of great interest to the Charleston community and garnered widespread coverage from media outlets both locally and throughout the United States,” Toal wrote.
“The controversy involved allegations of racial insensitivity in a city steeped with a historical legacy of racial tension. When viewing the record as whole, there is little doubt that the speech at issue in this case was addressed to a matter of public concern. Furthermore, it is settled law that expressions of opinion on matters of public concern are immune from liability for defamation.”