Lawsuit over monuments spawns defamation battle

By Peter Vieth
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
RICHMOND, VA — The fight over the future of Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments led to the violent “Unite the Right” rally two years ago. Now, the same dispute has given rise to a First Amendment battle over a magazine article about supporters of the historic statues.

A lawsuit filed by a retired Charlottesville investment advisor has sparked a legal battle over free speech, “SLAPP” suits and the limits of defamation law.

Edward Dickinson Tayloe II contends he has been subject to undeserved scorn and humiliation because he was portrayed as a racist living in the city of Charlottesville.

A weekly paper quoted an activist speaking of Tayloe’s ancestors: “For generations this family has been roiling the lives of black people, and this is what [plaintiff Tayloe] chooses to pursue.”

“Plaintiff Tayloe has condemned racism for his entire life, and does so now,” Tayloe said in a $1.35 million lawsuit filed in May. But the defendants say his suit should be cast aside as an effort to stifle public discussion of race relations, among other defenses.

In March, the Charlottesville magazine C-Ville Weekly profiled the group that sued to block the city from moving statues commemorating Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

The front page of the paper depicted Confederate soldiers protecting the Lee statue. The headline: “LAST STAND” was followed by the deck: “The plaintiffs defending Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments.”

Tayloe was first featured. “Tayloe, 76, comes from a First Family of Virginia that was one of the largest slave-owning dynasties in Virginia,” the article said, before recounting incidents of the family’s history.

The article described Tayloe as a portfolio manager and past president of the Lee-Jackson Foundation, which supported preservation of the statues. He was a Vietnam War veteran with a special interest in preservation of war memorials, the article continued.

The writer, C-Ville news editor Lisa Provence, quoted activist and University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt to conclude her portrait of Tayloe: “For generations this family has been roiling the lives of black people, and this is what [plaintiff Tayloe] chooses to pursue.”

Tayloe sued in May naming magazine owner C-Ville Holdings LLC, author Provence and Schmidt, the quoted activist. Tayloe’s lawyer, Thomas E. Albro of Charlottesville, is experienced in defamation law. In 2000, representing a judge, he forced a newspaper to pay $500,000 to settle after the paper quoted a disappointed litigant who accused the judge of taking a bribe.

Albro filed Tayloe’s lawsuit in Albemarle Circuit Court, saying the defendants regularly conduct substantial business activity in the county.

He said the C-Ville article contained inferences, implications and insinuations that Tayloe is a racist, that he joined the statue litigation to antagonize people of color and that he intends to “roil the lives of black people.”

Tayloe denied those implications and said he joined the statue litigation to see the “undisturbed continuation of war memorials” and because he demands that his elected representatives obey the rule of law.

“Plaintiff Tayloe has condemned racism for his entire life, and does so now. Plaintiff Tayloe is not a racist and any claim, suggestion, or implication that he is would be false and defamatory in its entirety,” his lawsuit said.

The suit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 for punitive damages.

The defendants seem ready to do battle. The magazine owner and writer Provence are represented by veteran media lawyer Jay Ward Brown of Washington.

Schmidt is represented by lawyers with the ACLU of Virginia and civil rights attorney Deborah C. Wyatt of Charlottesville.

The defendants filed demurrers based primarily on 1st Amendment defenses but also invoked Virginia’s fledgling anti-SLAPP statute protecting speech on matters of public concern.

The magazine and its reporter say that the defamatory implications cited in the lawsuit were never actually conveyed or intended, that the passages cited were not actually about Tayloe and that the article was mere opinion that cannot support a libel lawsuit.

Use of the phrase “roiling the lives of black people” is “the kind of ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ or loose language not capable of being proved true or false, that is non-actionable opinion,” Brown wrote in a brief.

Moreover, “Tayloe’s lawsuit is the archetype of the kind of harassing litigation that prompted the Virginia Legislature in 2017 to enact a special immunity statute protecting speech on matters of public concern,” the media defendants said.

Schmidt’s brief also cited Va. Code § 8.01-223.2. The lawsuit “represents a scornful attempt by the Plaintiff to strip a local community member and activist of her voice, stifling her ability to speak about matters of public concern,” wrote ACLU lawyer Eden B. Heilman of Richmond.

Albro has not yet filed a response to the demurrers and no hearing is scheduled.
 

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