A defamation lawsuit against a University of Virginia professor who spoke out through the news media about local issues involving the history of slavery in Charlottesville and their relationship to Confederate monuments is frivolous and should be dismissed, according to a brief in the case filed today by the ACLU of Virginia.
Dr. Jalane Schmidt, historian, activist and associate professor of religious studies at UVa., is being sued by Charlottesville resident Edward Dickinson Tayloe II for a comment published in a March 6 C-Ville Weekly article about local figures fighting the Charlottesville City Council’s efforts to remove Confederate monuments there. Her comment referenced Tayloe’s involvement in protecting the Confederate symbols and his family’s history of slave ownership and domestic slave trade.
“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,” Schmidt states.
Mr. Tayloe’s defamation lawsuit, filed May 28, accuses Dr. Schmidt, C-Ville Holdings LLC, and C-Ville Weekly reporter Lisa Provence of defamation and seeks nearly $2 million in damages.
In Dr. Schmidt’s response, the ACLU of Virginia argues that Mr. Tayloe is a limited public figure subject to criticism as a result of having interjected himself into the public monument debate. Further, her comment is an opinion protected by the First Amendment, and Mr. Tayloe failed to show that she made her comment with actual malice, which is a legal standard for defamation.
“Under the guise of an action for defamation, [Tayloe] seeks to censor the opinion of those question both his support for the Confederate statues and his motivations for defending them,” the ACLU-VA’s filing states. Tayloe’s lawsuit sends “a clear message to others who wish to opine on matters of public concern in which Plaintiff is involved: disagree or critique Plaintiff Tayloe, then you, too, will face the threat of a lawsuit, including extraordinary financial liability and attorney’s fees.”
In asking the judge to dismiss the claim, the ACLU-VA characterizes it as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP)” suit, which is litigation intended to silence, censor and intimidate critics out of the marketplace of ideas by burdening them with the cost of a lawsuit they may not be able to afford.