“The plaintiffs: Who’s who in the fight to keep Confederate monuments” was a fairly straightforward feature story we published in March, about the 13 people and organizations suing the city over council’s vote to move the Lee and Jackson statues.
As I wrote in an editor’s letter back then, “Much blame (not to mention death threats) has been showered on those who want the statues to be moved, but little attention has been paid to those suing to keep them in place.” Who were the people who cared so deeply about the Confederate monuments, even after the horrific violence of 2017, that they would sue the city to keep them in place? Our story, by then-news editor Lisa Provence, was an attempt to shed light on that question.
In response, one of those plaintiffs, Edward Dickinson Tayloe II, sued this paper, Provence, and even UVA professor Jalane Schmidt, a source in the story, for $1.7 million, claiming that by relating the facts of his family’s slave-holding history, we were defaming him and implying that he was racist.
Yesterday, in a packed courtroom, Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Claude Worrell dismissed the case, declaring that neither Schmidt’s comments nor the story as a whole were defamatory or libelous. But while it’s a victory for free speech, it still took five months and many thousands of dollars in legal fees to get there.
SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) have, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “become an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing criticism through expensive, baseless legal proceedings.”
Virginia is one of many states that has passed an anti-SLAPP law, but in this case Judge Worrell declined to award attorney’s fees to us or Schmidt, because he was dismissing the case on other grounds. That’s troubling. Eden Heilman, the ACLU attorney representing Schmidt, argues that the mere possibility of a costly legal proceeding can be enough to intimidate people from speaking up, even if the suit is baseless.
The threat of wealthy individuals weaponizing the courts when they are covered in ways they disagree with remains very real.