Parker Poe and the First Amendment Clinic at Duke University School of Law recently teamed up to secure a pro bono victory at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The defamation case centered around comments that Kevin Hennelly made on Facebook and a newspaper website that were critical of efforts to rezone a golf course in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
The plaintiff claimed more than $100 million in damages attributable to Hennelly’s comments. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, which held that Hennelly’s comments were protected by the First Amendment. Law students from the First Amendment Clinic played an integral role in the victory, including arguing motions before the district court.
“After we were retained, it quickly became clear that the case would be economically unsustainable for Hennelly to defend,” Parker Poe Charleston partner Robert Jordan says. “We reached out to the First Amendment Clinic about taking the case pro bono together, and the clinic has been outstanding as co-counsel.”
The ruling ends more than three years of litigation against Hennelly. It is the second case in which Parker Poe and the First Amendment Clinic successfully defended him. The plaintiff in a related case, which was based on the same allegedly defamatory comments, voluntarily dismissed a separate defamation suit that was pending in South Carolina’s federal district court.
“Most students don’t leave law school having litigated a real case,” says Duke Law Clinical Professor and Clinic Supervising Attorney Nicole Ligon. “Our students left our clinic having stood up in front of a court, argued before a federal judge, and written substantive legal briefs.”
Several cohorts of law students from fall 2018 through spring 2020 worked on the case. Depending on the stage of litigation, students, under Duke faculty and Parker Poe’s supervision, handled everything from motion practice to discovery to oral argument.
“Parker Poe was with us every step of the way, including sitting in on mock argument practice to make sure we were positioning our argument in a way that we all agreed was the best strategy,” Ligon says. “It was amazing for the students to learn from Parker Poe’s litigators and see how they are dedicating themselves to pro bono work in addition to their normal caseload.”
Parker Poe Charleston associate Robert Osborne was also deeply involved in the case.
“We were really impressed by the amount of preparation that the students put into the case and the quality of their work,” Osborne says. “It’s great to get a pro bono win for our client before the Fourth Circuit, and then it’s doubly great that we partnered with law students and professors from the First Amendment Clinic to do it.”
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