South Carolina Supreme Court Limits Public Figure Status

Published Feb. 2024

Eric Robinson
By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications

Ruling in a non-media case on Jan. 17, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that a former public high school football coach and athletic director was not a public official or public figure for the purposes of a libel claim, and restored the coach’s $200,000 defamation verdict against the Berkeley County School District.

After 15 years coaching at Hanahan and Cane Bay high schools, in 2011 Jeffrey L. Cruce became the head football coach and athletic director for Berkeley High School. After leading the team to a regional title in the 2014 season, for the 2015 season he adopted a controversial “no punt” offensive scheme, which led to a 3-7 season for the Stags. In December 2015, Cruce was reassigned to a position as a middle school guidance counselor. Cruce later resigned from the school district at the end of the school year and moved out of state.

After the reassignment on Jan. 7, 2016, Berkeley High athletic trainer Chris Stevens sent an email to 45 recipients—including Berkeley High’s paid and volunteer athletic coaches, others involved in the athletic department and some administrators—that questioned the integrity and completeness of Cruce’s student athletic eligibility files, claiming that the files were a potential liability to the school district.

After resigning, Cruce sued the school district in Berkeley County Circuit Court for libel and wrongful termination. The trial court granted the school district a directed verdict on all claims except the portion of the defamation claim relating to Steven’s email. At the conclusion of the trial, the court granted a directed verdict dismissing all but the libel claim stemming from the e-mail.

The trial court also held that Cruce was a private figure for purposes of the defamation claim. The jury then awarded $200,000 in actual damages.

The distinction between public figures and private figures in defamation cases is the legacy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan and subsequent cases. As a result, public officials—government officials with significant policy-making powers—and public figures—individuals who are prominent in society—have increased burdens in libel cases. These include the requirement that public officials and public figures who sue for defamation must prove that defendants acted with “actual malice:” that the defendant either knew the statement was false or acted with “reckless disregard” as to whether it was true or false.

Private figures, on the other hand, need to prove the standards set by the state in which the claim is being heard. In South Carolina, that standard is a bit unclear. While the South Carolina Supreme Court held in 1982 that the standard was negligence, more recent cases from the federal courts have held that the standard in South Carolina is common law “malice,” meaning that the statement was made with bad intentions. (Note this differs from “actual malice,” described above.)

In prior decisions the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that school board members and a school trustee are public officials, but had not ruled on the status of public school football coaches. However, courts in New York, Oklahoma and Texas held that they are public figures.

Citing the non-South Carolina cases holding public school football coaches to be public figures, in 2021 the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial jury verdict for Cruce.

But the South Carolina Supreme Court restored the verdict in its Jan. 17 ruling, rejecting the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that Cruce was a public figure.

First the Supreme Court ruled that Cruce was not a public official:

We understand Cruce was a public employee and enjoyed media attention akin to that of many sports figures. But that does not transform him into a public official … . No matter how intense the public gaze may be upon sports figures, they do not have any official influence or decision-making authority about serious issues of public policy or core government functions, such as defense, public health and safety, budgeting, infrastructure, taxation, or law and order. It is these public issues and functions that the First Amendment recognizes as so essential to democracy that public debate about them and their policymakers should be unchecked, except where the speech is knowingly false or uttered with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity, i.e. the “actual malice” standard of New York Times v. Sullivan.

The South Carolina Supreme Court then examined its test for determining whether a libel plaintiff is or is not a limited-purpose public figure. Abandoning a test that the court announced in a 2006 case that looked at five factors, the court instead adopted a new, three-part test for making this determination: (1) whether the plaintiff voluntarily injected herself into and played a prominent role in a public controversy, defined as a controversy whose resolution affects a substantial segment of the public; (2) whether the defamation occurred after the plaintiff voluntarily entered the controversy but while still embroiled in it; and (3) whether the defamation was related to the controversy.

Applying this new standard, the court concluded that Cruce was not a public figure, even for limited purposes of coverage of high school football and his team.

We conclude Cruce is not a limited public figure … . First, no public controversy was present. The merit of Cruce’s coaching strategy was not a controversy that affected large segments of society. Second, even if a public controversy existed over Cruce’s coaching strategy, Stevens’ defamatory comments related to Cruce’s paperwork skills, not his gridiron acumen.

As a result, the $200,000 jury verdict based on the trial court’s ruling that Cruce was a private figure was restored.

FOIA Follies

Observers of local government bodies and boards in South Carolina are unfortunately not surprised when these bodies all too often evade or ignore South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Law, which generally requires meetings and documents of public bodies to be open to the public with what are supposed to be limited exceptions.

But several incidents in the past few weeks have shown that the FOIA is often disregarded by government entities throughout the state.

On Jan. 17, a lawsuit was filed against Spartanburg County and the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office over their refusal to release incident reports for its annual “Rolling Thunder” operation, which stops and searches vehicles on I-85 with the goal of finding drugs and other contraband. The program has been criticized as targeting African-Americans. The sheriff’s office refused to disclose the reports even though such reports are specifically mentioned as documents that must be disclosed in the FOIA law. The department does release a summary of the program’s results each year, but refuses to make the individual incident reports public.

Then, on Feb. 6 the Charleston County School District Chairman Keith Grybowski announced that he was planning to sign a contract with Anita Huggins to become the district’s superintendent. Huggins had been serving as acting superintendent since the board ousted former superintendent Eric Gallien only eleven weeks after he took the post. But several board members objected, claiming that they were not informed about the details of the pending contract until it was presented during an executive session of the board held on Jan. 22, adding that Huggins and her contract had not gone through the usual public hiring process.

But perhaps the most outrageous recent incident ignoring FOIA came when the Richland County School District voted Feb. 1 to take action on a construction project that was halted when it was discovered that it did not have proper permits. The board discussed that action in a closed executive session with its lawyer before the public vote, which is permitted under FOIA. But when the board voted in public session to act in accordance with the lawyer’s advice, it refused to reveal what action it was taking, other than that it was approving “the recommendation as outlined in executive session.” A lawsuit has been filed alleging that this action violated FOIA.

Hopefully one or both of these lawsuits will be successful, and will lead local bodies to be more aware of and faithful to FOIA requirements. For longtime observers of these antics, that would be a true surprise.

Eric P. Robinson focuses on media and internet law as associate professor at the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an affiliate of USC’s Joseph F. Rice School of Law and in an “of counsel” position at Fenno Law in Charleston / Mount Pleasant. He has worked in media law for more than 25 years and is admitted to legal practice in New York and New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court. This column is for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions are his own, not necessarily those of his employers.

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