A former high school football coach had his jury verdict reinstated on his defamation claim by the South Carolina Supreme Court. The state high court determined that the former coach and athletic director was not a public official, but a private person, for purposes of defamation law.
Jeffrey L. Cruce served as the football coach and athletic director for Berkeley High School beginning in 2011. In 2015, he instituted a “no punt” philosophy during the football season. Critics contended that this controversial policy contributed to some lopsided losses that year.
In December 2015, the school district reassigned Cruce to a middle school. In January 2016, Berkeley High athletic trainer Chris Stevens sent an e-mail to 45 people, questioning the integrity of Cruce’s files on student athletes. Cruce later resigned his position and moved out of state.
Cruce sued the Berkeley County School District for wrongful termination and defamation. The defamation claim centered on Stevens’ e-mail. A jury awarded Cruce $200,000 in damages. However, the school district appealed and the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the decision, finding that Cruce was a public official and that South Carolina state law provides immunity to schools for employee conduct that constitutes “actual malice.”
The South Carolina Court of Appeals reasoned that this provision of state law immunized the school district, because a public-official plaintiff must show evidence of actual malice — knowing falsity or reckless disregard as to truth or falsity – in order to recover for defamation.
However, on appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the appellate court in its Jan. 17, 2024, decision in Cruce v. Berkeley County School District, because it found 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,” the state high court wrote. “But that does not transform him into a public official, a classification that would strip him of his right to protect his name from being defamed to the same extent as a private citizen.”
The state high court continued: “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.”
The state Supreme Court also determined that Cruce was not a public figure or a limited-purpose public figure — categories of defamation plaintiffs who also must prove actual malice in order to recover for defamation. Cruce was not a public figure because he did not have pervasive fame, the court found. The closer question was whether Cruce was a limited-purpose public figure. This type of defamation plaintiff can apply to a defamation plaintiff for a specific controversy.
But the state high court found that Cruce was not even a limited-purpose public figure, because the allegedly defamatory comments did not relate to a public controversy.
The court explained: “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.”
The South Carolina Supreme Court instead found that Cruce was a private person. Although the school district still argued that the e-mail in question did not have a defamatory meaning, the high court found that the e-mail questioned Cruce’s competency and, thus, could be considered defamatory.
David L. Hudson Jr. teaches First Amendment law and constitutional law classes at Belmont University College of Law. He is the author, co-author, or co-editor of more than 50 books, including The Constitution Explained: A Guide for Every American (Visible Ink Press, 2022) and The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012).
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