Crime & Courts

SC ‘Melongate’ football players, coach lose libel action against paper’s criticism

An appeals court has sided against the head coach and six former members of an elite S.C. high school’s football team in a libel suit they brought against the publishers of the Charleston City Paper and various other parties.

The decision, issued Wednesday by a three-judge panel of the S.C. Court of Appeals, could be appealed.

But as it stands, the court’s 28-page decision strongly upholds citizens’ and reporters’ rights to talk about matters of public interest and express opinions on those matters, according to a free speech legal expert.

The legal challenge that spawned the court’s decision started in 2014, when a head coach at the North Charleston Academic Magnet School and six former players sued Charleston City Paper over two editorials that criticized the team and its coaches for a post-game ritual critics characterized as racist.

“This is a significant opinion that confirms the vital role a press, free from governmental interference and the threat of damage awards, plays in a democracy,” said Jay Bender, who has represented many S.C. media groups including The State Media Co. in various free speech issues for more than 45 years.

“The opinion addresses and resolves key questions that arise when newspapers report on matters that make some people uncomfortable,” said Bender. He said the City Paper performed “a public service” in fighting the lawsuit and getting a legal opinion that “protects the flow of information to the public.”

The lawsuit concerned two 2014 opinion editorials in the Charleston City Paper concerning the firing of the football coach, Eugene “Bud” Walpole, for allowing a post-game watermelon ritual performed by members of the Academic Magnet football team, whose nickname is the Raptors.

In the ritual, as described by the Court of Appeals, the mostly white Academic Magnet football players would gather in a circle and smash the watermelon while others were standing in a group or locking arms and making chanting sounds some described as “monkey-like.” The watermelons were named “Bonds Wilson” — the name for a formerly segregated African American school and had a caricature of a face on them, according to the appeals court.

Acting on a complaint that the ritual played to racial stereotypes, then Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley held a press conference in which she criticized the ritual and announced that the football coach had been fired. McGinley did not blame the football players, but said the coaches “either knew or should have known about the negative racial stereotypes of this watermelon ritual.”

City Paper’s editor, Chris Haire, watched that press conference, then wrote an editorial about the events titled “Melongate: Big Toothy grins, watermelons and monkey sounds don’t mix.” The editorial, using earthy language, sharply criticized the football team players and coaching staff for allowing a ritual that was “at worst indicative of the casual acceptance of racism in Charleston today, even among the best and brightest that the county has to offer.”

The editorial went on to say, “Seriously, did everyone at Academic Magnet High School forget the last 100 years of American history? Did they forget about blackface, buckwheat and Birth of a Nation? ... The point is that an entire team of players thought it was OK to draw a grinning face on a watermelon, smash it on the ground each time they beat a largely black team, and make monkey noises — and no one apparently told them to stop.”

After the coach was fired, he was reinstated and Superintendent McGinley resigned. The City Paper wrote another editorial headlined “Mob Rules: School district forces out superintendent who fired coach who condoned racist ritual.”

In the players and coach’s lawsuits against City Paper, they argued that the paper should have investigated the public statements made at the press conference by the superintendent.

Specifically, the players and coach argued that the City Paper had labeled them in one editorial as “racist douchebags” without any investigation or without any evidence.” In fact, the coach and players said, their motives were based on a Tom Hanks movie, Castaway, where he drew a face on a volleyball and named it “Wilson.”

But the Court of Appeals panel ruled that publications have the right to publish “fair and substantially accurate reports of judicial and other government proceedings” without incurring the burden of having to investigate the truthfulness of everything everyone says at a public meeting.

The Court of Appeals also cited the First Amendment, saying it protects speech and opinions on matters of public concern and reflects “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.”

Wallace Lightsey, a Greenville lawyer who represented the Charleston City Paper with Meliah Jefferson, said Wednesday, “This is clearly a matter that had gotten a lot of attention, locally and nationally. I just think it’s fundamentally inconsistent with the First Amendment to think you can get sued for expressing your opinion about something of substantial public interest that everybody is talking about.”

Neither John E. Parker nor William Barnes III, the Hampton lawyers who represented the coach and football players, could be reached for comment Wednesday.

The case never went to trial. Former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, now serving as a circuit court judge, heard arguments on the case from both sides and dismissed it after ruling that the football players and their coach had no legal or factual basis to bring a lawsuit.

The three Appeals Court judges ruling in favor of the newspaper were John Geathers, Garrison Hill and Bruce Williams.

One of the newspaper editorials at issue in the lawsuit also said, “If there’s one lesson to be learned from all of this, it’s this: big toothy grins, watermelons and monkey noises don’t mix.”

John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, and that of child killer Tim Jones.