The S.C. Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday to uphold the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit involving a former Academic Magnet High School football coach and a controversial post-game ritual.
At issue were two editorials published by Charleston City Paper in 2014 about Academic Magnet’s former football coach Eugene “Bud” Walpole and the football team’s victory ritual in which players chanted and smashed watermelons with caricature-like faces painted on them.
“We’re very pleased with the decision. We think it was the right one,” said Wallace Lightsey, an attorney for Jones Street Publishers, former owner and publisher of Charleston City Paper.
The football tradition was criticized by many for perpetuating racist stereotypes against African Americans, and it garnered intense media attention from local and national outlets.
In November 2014, members of the football team filed a defamation complaint against Jones Street Publishers, Charleston County School District, Atlanta-based diversity consultant Kevin Clayton and his firm Axxis Consulting.
A month later, Walpole also filed a similar defamation complaint against the same defendants, and both cases were eventually combined in 2015.
The lawsuit argued that the articles implied that Walpole and football team were racist.
A year later, the Court of Common Pleas ruled that the reporting and editorials were protected by law and didn’t defame the plaintiffs. Walpole’s attorneys appealed the decision.
After almost three years of legal back-and-forth, the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal Wednesday.
"We respectfully disagree with the opinion," said William Barnes, an attorney for Walpole and the football players. "We feel being called a racist (expletive) is defamatory," referring to one of the editorials published by Charleston City Paper.
The opinion found the factual statements in the articles were protected by the fair report privilege and the opinions published were protected under the First Amendment. The opinion also said the proof of injury to reputation was not shown, and it was not shown that the defendants "acted with actual malice."
Noel Mermer, then-publisher of Charleston City Paper, called it a “Great day for the First Amendment” in an email to The Post and Courier.
Walpole and the football players' attorneys could seek a rehearing, and if that’s denied, appeal further to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
"As far as going forward, that's something that we're going to be talking to our clients about and making a decision on," Barnes said.