By Dr. Jalane Schmidt, associate professor at University of Virginia and our client in Tayloe v. C-Ville Holdings.
As a public historian, being able to give accurate historical context regarding current events is crucial. That is why I am working with the ACLU to defend my right to free speech.
The ACLU of Virginia is representing me in Tayloe v. C-Ville Holdings, a case in which I am being sued for defamation. The plaintiff, Edward Dickinson Tayloe II, is also a plaintiff with the Monument Fund, a group suing the Charlottesville City Council for voting in 2017 to remove two of the city’s downtown Confederate monuments. Plaintiff Tayloe has filed suit against me, reporter Lisa Provence, and the C-Ville Weekly newspaper for the contents of a March 6 article which detailed the plaintiff’s family history of slave ownership and domestic slave trading.
Tayloe’s lawsuit against me not only fails to meet the legal requirements for a defamation case, it is also a disdainful attempt to stifle speech and prevent me from speaking out about matters of public concern. These types of claims, known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits, are designed to silence, censor and intimidate critics with the threat of costly litigation.
I make history accessible to the community by literally taking it to the streets. Rather than limiting the discussion of ideas to academic conferences and specialized journals, my work as a public historian educates a broad audience. I lead walking tours of Charlottesville’s downtown Confederate monuments for local community members, teachers, visiting school groups, and journalists from all over the world. This includes people who have come to Charlottesville before, during and after the 2017 Summer of Hate. I speak at public meetings about the history of our town’s Confederate monuments and their connections to white supremacy. I help plan and lead our town’s newly instituted annual Liberation and Freedom Day, which commemorates the March 3, 1865 arrival of Union troops that began emancipating 14,000 community members (over half of the local population) who were then enslaved. In Summer 2018, I helped to locate a nearby 1898 lynching site and planned a memorial ceremony for the victim, Charlottesville resident John Henry James, before leading a 100-member Charlottesville delegation on a weeklong Civil Rights Pilgrimage to the Equal Justice Initiative racial terror lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
As a scholar who researches, writes and teaches at the University of Virginia and in the City of Charlottesville about race, religion and politics, I am often called upon by the press to explain the historical context of recent events, including the revelation of a 1921 donation pledge from the Ku Klux Klan to the University of Virginia and a previously unknown collection of Ku Klux Klan robes at the local historical society, the response to the lethal white supremacist attacks at the Aug. 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally, the racial and class roots of calls for civility, or the ongoing Confederate monuments lawsuit in Charlottesville.
History belongs to everyone, not just scholars. Marginalized narratives of vulnerable groups of our community must be included in our collective story in order to inform our efforts to make changes in the present and to promote a more just and equitable future. First Amendment protections should not be stifled by lawsuits designed to make anyone fearful of the consequences of exercising their rights.