Can you sue if it’s true?

We all have past experiences we aren’t proud of.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone without a few ancestral skeletons in the closet––but few take home the prize for cringeworthy family roots quite like Edward Tayloe II.

Tayloe is your average 76-year-old guy from Virginia: he’s white, he’s angry, and he just happens to come from a long line of slave-owning dynasties––historically one of the biggest in the state.

Remember all that “Unite the Right Rally” chaos that went down in Charlottesville in 2017? Well Tayloe was one the supporters of keeping the monument of Robert E. Lee around. In fact, earlier this year the C-Ville Weekly confirmed Tayloe as “one of 13 people suing to prevent the removal of Charlottesville’s embattled Confederate monuments.”

The article (written by Lisa Provence) became controversial as it focused less on the lawsuits and more on Tayloe’s sinister family ties and historical contributions to slavery in the United States.

Once published, the story put Tayloe on a racist pedestal, making him an easy target for finger pointing, humiliation, and an overall damaged reputation. 

In response to his unveiled family tree, Tayloe took on a trifecta of lawsuits; He sued the writer, newspaper, and a University of Virginia professor quoted in the piece––all for defamation in the form of $1 million, according to the Washington Post.

Tayloe’s lawyers argued that the story caused serious emotional trauma and qualified as libel as it falsely implied that their client was a racist.

Now defamation is tricky business, and this case in particular is the first of its kind. While some might say Tayloe didn’t deserve to have his slave-owning family history plastered on the front page of a weekly paper, I’m not so sure this is what the Constitution had in mind when citing defamation.

Supreme Court Justice Black for instance, might have said this case doesn’t stand a chance because libel and defamation laws violate the First Amendment by sheer existence.

During a 1964 landmark defamation case, New York Times v. Sullivan, the Times had published an advertisement criticizing police in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. One of the unnamed Montgomery police officials shown in the ad sued the paper for defamation, arguing that it falsely painted him in a poor light just like Tayloe. The Times appealed the case, saying that 100% accuracy among public official criticism was both impossible and free press infringement.

The case was a unanimous win for The Times, denying public officials from seeking such lawsuits from then on.

Justice Black made a persuasive point during that hearing: “An unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment.”

And even arguing that Tayloe’s case was similar to Sullivan’s case (which failed might I recall) would be a stretch.

First off, nothing published about Tayloe was subjectively wrong. Family history may be hard to hear, but public historical facts like ancestry can’t be suppressed just because they make you look bad.

Second, Tayloe’s only defense for defamation is “emotional distress.” How could a court possibly measure something as internal as that? If that were the case, I’d be suing my high school yearbook photographers for making me look bad in photos––surely that was mental torment.

Despite all that disproves his case, the fact that Tayloe is a layperson, makes his situation less cut and dry. While Justices are well-aware the defined separation between public officials and criticism among the press––the water becomes murkier when the plaintiff is an average Joe.

A.K.A, Tayloe wouldn’t make the government look bad for picking sides because he doesn’t get a paycheck from them.

Ultimately, Tayloe is attempting to make a (weak) legal argument that the public perception of a truthful fact about his family, entitles him to money and protection. In the wise words of Lizzo: “truth hurts,” but it isn’t illegal.

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