Court rules in favor of City Paper publisher in Academic Magnet defamation case

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A South Carolina judge has ruled in favor of Jones Street Publishers, owners of the Charleston City Paper, in the case surrounding the publication’s coverage of controversial post-game celebrations by the Academic Magnet High School football team in 2014 and the subsequent firing of the team’s coach Eugene “Bud” Walpole.

Alleging defamation, Walpole along with several students on the team and their parents filed suits against Jones Street, as well as Charleston County Schools, after news broke of the team smashing a watermelon and making what were described as “monkey-like” sounds. In her summary judgment, Judge Jean Toal, the former Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, found that the City Paper "presented a substantially accurate summary of the facts” as presented by district officials and the opinions expressed by the paper “are a fundamental example of the type of discourse protected by the First Amendment.”

In fall 2014, Academic Magnet became the focus of intense scrutiny and national media attention when details emerged of a post-game celebrations that many found to be inappropriate. At the time, Charleston County Schools Superintendant Nancy McGinley stated that players would gather in a circle and smash a watermelon while others gathered around making “monkey sounds,” according to court documents. McGinley also stated that players named the watermelons after Bonds-Wilson, the formerly segregated African-American school that once stood on the campus where Academic Magnet is now located. The failed lawsuit against Jones Street alleged that two opinion articles appearing in the City Paper, as well as a story detailing the press conference during which Walpole’s termination was announced, were defamatory in nature because they “imply that the football team and the head coach are racist.”

According to Toal’s ruling, the news article cited in the suit was a fair and accurate summary of statements made by McGinley and other district officials. The judge also found that the views expressed in the opinion articles related to the team’s post-game behavior were protected by law.

“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 Stated,” 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. Futhermore, it is settled law that expressions of opinion on matters of public concern are immune from liability for defamation.”

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