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Characterization Of Academic Magnet Coach Sue Racist Watermelon Ceremony

Claiming that he described in watermelon ceremonially after the wrongly portrayed him as racist, slander academic magnet high school football coach sued his employers and others.

Eugene "Bud" Walpole is suing the Charleston County School District, diversity consultant Kevin Clayton and his firm Axxis Consulting Co., and Jones Street Publishers LLC, parent company of the Charleston City Paper.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the Court of Common Pleas, is seeking unspecified actual damages against all of the defendants as well as punitive damages from Clayton, Axxis Consulting and Jones Street Publishers.

This is the second suit filed in connection with the football team's ritual. Parents of three Academic Magnet High School football players filed a similar defamation suit against the same defendants last month claiming that characterizations of the team's ritual damaged their sons' reputations.

Walpole's lawsuit hinges on characterizations of his knowledge of and involvement in the team's postgame victory ritual of chanting and smashing watermelons with caricature faces drawn on them.

Concerns over what some saw as an offensive racial stereotype demeaning to African-Americans led to Walpole's firing from his coaching duties on Oct. 20. He was rehired two days later by former Superintendent Nancy McGinley after players and parents rallied to his defense, while members of the black community denounced the coach and the players' behavior. McGinley resigned as superintendent Oct. 31 in the wake of the controversy.

Walpole did not respond to an email Wednesday seeking comment.

The suit claims that Clayton and Associate Superintendent Lou Martin, both of whom questioned the team about its watermelon activities, falsely portrayed that Walpole "knowingly allowed the team to make monkey sounds and draw a monkey face on the watermelon ... intending to cast African-American opponents in a derogatory light."

McGinley, who is not a named defendant, later described the team as making noises that sounded like "ooh, ooh, ooh," which she further characterized as "monkey sounds," the suit said. Those statements, according to the suit, falsely accused Walpole of being racially prejudiced.

Interviews of the players and coaches revealed no evidence their actions were racially motivated, according to the suit, but Clayton, McGinley and Martin still published statements "with malice" that characterized the ritual as having racial overtones.

The suit also singles out several articles published in the Charleston City Paper that, according to the suit, wrongly accused Walpole of being prejudiced. Articles and headlines identified in the suit as defamatory include an article posted on the paper's website on Oct. 21 titled "Melongate: Big toothy grins, watermelons, and monkey sounds don't mix," and another published Nov. 5 titled "School district forces out superintendent who fired coach who condoned racist ritual. Mob rules."

Attorney Jay Bender, who teaches media law at the University of South Carolina, said Walpole and the players' parents may have a difficult time proving they were victims of defamation.

Under South Carolina law, Walpole, who would likely be considered a public official, would have to prove the characterizations made by the school district, Clayton and Jones Street Publishers were false and that they knew the statements were false or had serious doubts about their accuracy, said Bender, who also represents The Post and Courier.

Bender said because no individual football players were singled out, it will likely be difficult to prove the three players' reputations were damaged based on reports of what the team did.

If an individual player were to have a claim, Bender said the player would have to prove the defendants made false characterizations of their actions and that the characterizations were motivated by hatred, ill will or spite.

"That's a very high threshold," he said.

Erica Taylor, spokeswoman for the Charleston County School District, declined to comment on the suit. Clayton also had no comment, saying he hadn't seen the suit.

Noel Mermer, publisher and co-owner of the Charleston City Paper, said in a statement that he believes the suit has no merit and that the paper will, "at the appropriate time," ask 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," Mermer said in the statement. "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."

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