Eugene H. “Bud” Walpole, a football coach at Academic Magnet High School, has filed a lawsuit against Charleston County School District, Kevin Clayton, Axxis Consulting Company, and City Paper parent company Jones Street Publishers LLC.
On Oct. 21, Charleston County School District announced that Walpole was no longer coaching at AMHS. According to a press release from the district, after hearing an allegation of “inappropriate post game celebrations” by the football team, an investigation was conducted and “as a result of the investigation, the head football coach will no longer be serving as a coach for Charleston County School District.” Then-Superintendent Nancy McGinley said in a press conference that the players drew “a face that could be considered a caricature” on a watermelon and then smashed it “while others either were standing in a group or locking arms and making chanting sounds that were described as ‘Ooo ooo ooo.'”
Walpole was reinstated the following day after McGinley said she had met with Walpole. In a press release announcing Walpole’s reinstatement, McGinley wrote:
“During the meeting, he acknowledged that the facts that emerged surrounding the celebratory practices of the Academic Magnet High School football program could be viewed in a negative way. He agreed that we will work together on increasing diversity awareness for students and the community.”
In Walpole’s lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 16 in a Charleston County court, the coach alleges that after meeting with the football team and coaches, Assistant Superintendent Louis Martin and consultant Kevin Clayton “falsely published to others that Coach Walpole knowingly allowed the football team to make animal sounds and draw a monkey face on the watermelon during these celebrations.” The lawsuit adds, “The defendants by their statements falsely accused Coach Walpole of being racially prejudiced.”
The lawsuit includes excerpts from columns and an article published by the Charleston City Paper about the news events, each of which the lawsuit says “falsely accuses Coach Walpole of being a racist and is defamatory.”
The lawsuit states that Walpole “is entitled to actual damages against all defendants and to punitive damages against the defendants.”
Noel Mermer, publisher and co-owner of the City Paper, issued the following response to the lawsuit:
We believe that this lawsuit has no merit and, at the appropriate time, we will be asking the court to dismiss it. The publications that the lawsuit is attacking were editorials in which the author was expressing his opinions on the recent events involving the Academic Magnet High School’s football program. Coach Walpole may not like those opinions, and he is certainly free to disagree with them, but in our system of free speech he is not free to sue someone because they have expressed an opinion that he doesn’t like.
S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender gave the following statement about the lawsuit:
The coach is going to be a public official, and to recover, he’s going to have to prove that, at the time of the publication, whoever made the decision to publish knew what was being published was false or had serious doubt about the accuracy of it and published it anyway. And that’s a very high threshold, and it’s rooted in the 1st and 14th Amendments for protection of the press on the discussion of issues of public importance.
Since football is the one true religion in South Carolina, a football coach is one of the highest-level public officials in the state of South Carolina. More people care about what a high school football coach does than care about what their member of the General Assembly does. So that coach is going to have a high burden to prove injury to his reputation.