Virginia ACLU asks judge to toss defamation suit connected to Confederate statue debate

On the anniversary weekend last year of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left one dead and dozens injured, police stood outside the downtown park where white supremacists clashed with anti-racist groups. They kept shields, helmets and chemical weapons nearby. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is asking a Charlottesville judge to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed against a University of Virginia professor who linked a local man’s defense of Confederate statues to his family’s history of slave ownership.

Edward Dickinson Tayloe II is one of the plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit seeking to stop the city from removing two Confederate statues from public parks. 

In a profile published in March by C-VILLE that detailed his family’s role in the slave trade and the demolition of an African-American community, Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religious studies at UVa., said: “For generations this family has been roiling the lives of black people, and this is what [plaintiff Tayloe] chooses to pursue.”

Tayloe filed a defamation lawsuit in May that names both Schmidt and Lisa Provence, a C-VILLE news editor, seeking $2 million in damages. 

“They investigated his family and went back centuries and depicted him as if he is in this lawsuit for the sole purpose of promoting white supremacy and continuing, as Jalane Schmidt said, to ‘roil the lives of black people,” a spokesman for Tayloe told Charlottesville’s CBS affiliate

The ACLU, which is representing Schmidt, argued this week that Tayloe is “subject to criticism as a result of having interjected himself into the public monument debate.” In Schmidt’s response, they further argue that her comment is protected by the First Amendment and that “Mr. Tayloe failed to show that she made her comment with actual malice, which is a legal standard for defamation.”

In its own filing, C-VILLE argues that “Not a single fact in the article is alleged to be false.”

The ACLU-VA describes the suit as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP)” suit, which, according to the brief, “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.”

In their court filing, the ACLU-VA says that Tayloe “seeks to censor the opinion of those [who] question both his support for the Confederate statues and his motivations for defending them,” and his lawsuit sends “a clear message to others who wish to opine on matters of public concern” that if they disagree with or critique him, they too “will face the threat of a lawsuit, including extraordinary financial liability and attorney’s fees.”

Schmidt said in a statement that, “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.”