AMHS coach files defamation suit over 'watermelon ritual' claims

VIDEO: AMHS coach files suit against school district, others over 'watermelon ritual' allegations

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The head football coach of Academic Magnet High School filed a defamation lawsuit Tuesday claiming he was unfairly and inaccurately portrayed as racist, portrayals that damaged his reputation.

The suit filed by Eugene "Bud" Walpole names the Charleston County School District; Kevin Clayton and Axxis Consulting Company; and Jones Street Publishers, LLC, publisher of the Charleston City Paper, as defendants and requests a jury trial.

The suit alleges that on Oct. 16, Charleston County School District Asst. Superintendent Louis Martin and Clayton met with the football team and coaches of the school after the school district received information about post-game celebrations of football team players involving the smashing of watermelons following wins, and, after finding no evidence of any racial reason for the ritual, falsely published to others that Walpole "knowingly allowed" the football team to make animal sounds and draw a monkey face on the watermelon.

"The defendants by falsely portraying that Coach Walpole knowingly allowed the team to make monkey sounds and draw a monkey face on the watermelon falsely accused Coach Walpole of intending to cast African American opponents in a derogatory light. The defendants by their statements falsely accused Coach Walpole of being racially prejudiced," the suit states.

The suit also claims former Supt. Nancy McGinley falsely stated to the public that with Coach Walpole's knowledge, "players would gather in a circle and squash the watermelon while others were either standing in a group or locking arms and making sounds described as, 'ooh, ooh, ooh.'"

"The statements of the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of the School District falsely accused the football team, with Coach Walpole's knowledge, of drawing monkey faces on a watermelon and making monkey sounds, which if true, would have been racially derogatory actions intended to equate black members of opposing football teams with monkeys," documents state.

The suit also alleges Clayton, McGinley and Martin made the statements even though they learned through interviews of the team and coaches that their statements were false, and accuses them of publishing the statements with malice. Documents state that Walpole was fired as coach because of the false statements made and published by Clayton and Martin on Oct. 20.

He was reinstated to his coaching duties on Oct. 22. McGinley resigned on Oct. 31 after seven years in her role, making her the district's longest-serving superintendent.

The suit also claims the false statements were published to others and in print media and local and national television, falsely depicting Walpole and the Academic Magnet High School football team as being racist.

The suit also cites several articles in the Charleston City Paper, including one from Oct. 21 titled, "Melongate: Big toothy grins, watermelons, and monkey sounds don't mix," and claims the article "falsely accused Walpole of being a racist and is defamatory."

Another article cited from the paper was dated Oct. 22, and stated Walpole had an "apparent problem recognizing racially insensitive matters," court documents state.

The paper's Oct. 30 article, "School district forces out superintendent who fired coach who condoned racist ritual. Mob rules," was also cited in the suit as being defamatory and accusing Walpole of being a racist.

The case will first be submitted to an alternative dispute resolution process, per Supreme Court rules before an actual court trial would begin.

The school district said it would not comment on the suit. Attempts to reach Clayton were unsuccessful.

"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," Noel Mermer, co-owner and publisher of Charleston City Paper, and managing member/partner of Jones Street Publishers, said in a statement.

Read a copy of the suit


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