CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The South Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a decision Wednesday to dismiss a defamation lawsuit brought by the former Academic Magnet football coach and some of his players.
The lawsuit stemmed from two opinion articles that appeared in the Charleston City Paper in 2014 shortly after Bud Wapole was removed as coach by then Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley.
The district investigated claims of a “watermelon ritual with students making monkey sounds” that football team members celebrated after victories. A board member came forward with concerns after learning of the ritual and notified CCSD officials.
After the articles were published, six members of the football team, and later Wapole himself, filed a defamation complaint against the school district and Jones Street Publishers, which owns and publishes the City Paper.
In the suits which were later combined, the players and Wapole argued that the articles implied that the football team and the coach were racist.
Following a 2016 hearing, the circuit court found that it was “settled law that expressions of opinion on matters of public concern are immune from liability for defamation" and there was little to no proof that Wapole or the players had their reputations hurt by the articles.
The appeals court opinion issued Wednesday found the statements in the article were factual and protected by fair reporting privilege. The appeals court judge also wrote the rest of the articles were protected by the First Amendment and Jones Street Publishers didn’t show “actual malice.”