A three-judge panel of the S.C. Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court’s decision in a defamation claim against Jones Street Publishers, the former owner of the Charleston City Paper, in a case stemming from opinions published in 2014.
The unanimous opinion was published on Wednesday after being heard in April.
“This is a really good opinion and a great win for the City Paper and for freedom of speech generally,” says Greenville attorney Wallace Lightsey, who represented Jones Street Publishers in the case. Appellate opinions do not have to be unanimous and often are not, he says. The length of the 28-page decision is also notable. “That shows that the court took the case seriously and did a thorough job explaining its decision,” Lightsey says.
The initial case against Jones Street Publishers was related to opinion writing about well-publicized and controversial celebrations by the Academic Magnet High School football team and the subsequent firing of its coach. The suit brought by students and parents alleged the opinions were defamatory because they “imply that the football team and the head coach are racist.”
Judge Jean Toal, a former State Supreme Court chief justice serving in the case as a special circuit court judge, granted a motion for summary judgment by Jones Street’s attorneys in 2016. In her ruling, Toal wrote the City Paper “presented a substantially accurate summary of the facts” as laid out by school district officials and the opinions expressed by the paper “are a fundamental example of the type of discourse protected by the First Amendment.” The appeal heard in April was to determine whether the circuit court should have granted that motion. The alt-weekly was sold to City Paper Publishing LLC in October 2019.
In Wednesday’s decision, the judges determined that appellants failed to prove defamation, writing that the City Paper‘s description of facts related to the case was protected since it relied on statements by school officials, finding remaining statements to be “expressions of opinion, ideas, and rhetorical hyperbole protected under the First Amendment.”
Plaintiffs can request a rehearing in the case, and if that is denied, their next stop would be to petition the S.C. Carolina Supreme Court.