A group of former high school football players won’t be able to bring a defamation suit against the owners of a Charleston alt-weekly newspaper that accused them of behaving like “racist douchebags” during a post-game ritual because the term was an expression of opinion and not a statement of fact, the South Carolina Court of Appeals has unanimously ruled.

Players on the Academic Magnet High School football team smashed a watermelon and made noises and movements mimicking monkeys after winning a game in 2014. The watermelon had the name “Bonds-Wilson” written on it, the name of a once-segregated African-American school that was located at the campus where AMHS is now located.

The Charleston County School District investigated the incident and initially fired the team’s head coach, Eugene Walpole. After the incident drew national media attention, the Charleston City Paper, owned by Jones Street Publishers, printed two editorials using the inflammatory phrase in reference to Walpole and his players.

The day after one of the editorials was published, Walpole was reinstated to his position as a result of community outrage (about his firing, not the players’ conduct). The second editorial was published after the Charleston County School Board announced the resignation of the district superintendent. Walpole and six of his players sued Jones Street for defamation, alleging that the editorials contained defamatory statements and damaged their reputations.

Charleston County Circuit Court Judge Jean H. Toal granted Jones Street’s motion for summary judgment on multiple grounds, including that the reporting constituted expressions of opinion on matters of public concern, which are immune from liability for defamation

In a Nov. 6 opinion, the Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that the lawsuit should be dismissed. Judge John D. Geathers, writing for the court, said that the phrase in question could not be reasonably interpreted as stating actual facts about the plaintiffs, all of whom agreed during their deposition testimony that whether something is racist is in fact a matter of opinion.

“Whether someone ‘more or less behaved like [a] racist douchebag’ or whether someone condoned an act that was ‘racist’ is susceptible to varying viewpoints and interpretations,” Geathers wrote. “One person may view certain behavior as disrespectful and offensive, but another person might view the same behavior as non-controversial and socially acceptable.”

The panel also agreed with Toal’s findings that the plaintiffs had been unable to offer any proof of injury to their reputation and that the parts of the news story that relayed the district superintendent’s description of the incident were protected by the fair reporting privilege.

Wallace Lightsey and Meliah Bowers Jefferson of Wyche in Greenville represented Jones Street Publishers. The attorneys said they were pleased with the court’s decision.

John Parker and William Barnes III of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick of Hampton represented the players and their coach. 

“While we respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision, we believe branding someone a ‘racist douchebag’ is defamatory and greatly harms someone’s reputation when falsely accused,” Barnes said. “In today’s time there is probably not much worse you can say about someone, especially when these articles are published on the internet and remain there today.”

The players maintain that there was absolutely no racist intent motivating the watermelon-smashing incident and the associated monkey noises.

Jay Bender of Baker Ravenel and Bender in Columbia, who was not involved in the case but is a libel consultant for several media companies in South Carolina, drew parallels between Toal’s circuit court ruling and a concurring opinion that she authored when she was a justice on the state’s Supreme Court and cited several times in her ruling.

“I thought that the Court of Appeals paid particular attention to the guidance that the trial judge had provided courts when she was on the Supreme Court,” Bender said. “When you have a person who, as a Supreme Court justice, tells the lower courts what the law is, and then she writes an opinion in a case, I think the Court of Appeals was wise to follow her.”

The appeals court also agreed with Toal that Walpole, as a high school football head coach, constituted a public official, and therefore could not bring a defamation suit against the paper unless he could show that it had acted with actual malice in reporting false statements. Bender said that such public officials don’t have a libel claim against someone who says something they simply don’t like.

“When somebody walks in and says ‘they’ve been calling me terrible names and this, that, and the other, and I want to sue,’ and the lawyer who’s been paying some attention could say, ‘well, that’s unfortunate, but you don’t have a claim.’ It’s a fact of life that very often libel cases get filed before the lawyers understand what libel law is,” Bender said.

The 29-page decision is Garrard v. Charleston County School District (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-092-19). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Renee Sexton on Twitter @BobcatRenee 

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