Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department employee who lost her job after a conservative website painted her as a racist, is planning a lawsuit in what could be a landmark case for the blogosphere.
Speaking at the National Association of Black Journalists' annual convention, Sherrod said she will sue Andrew Breitbart, who posted a clip on one of his websites, biggovernment.com, in which she appeared to be admitting to denying aid to a farmer because he was white.
The clip was a snippet of a speech Sherrod delivered to an NAACP meeting. It quickly emerged that, in context, it was part of a story about her personal journey toward tolerance and forgiveness -- but not quickly enough to keep Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack from demanding and receiving her resignation. He's since offered her an apology and another job.
"Reckless Disregard" for the Truth
If Sherrod does file a libel suit, the outcome could hinge on two questions. The first is whether the defense could establish that Sherrod's government job made her a public figure. In American libel law, to prove defamation, it must be demonstrated that the defendant acted with "actual malice" or a "reckless disregard" for the truth. Were Sherrod determined to be a public figure, her lawyers would have to show that Breitbart knew or should have known that he was misrepresenting the true nature of her remarks. The libel experts who spoke to Joe Strupp of Media Matters believe it would be possible for Sherrod to make that case.
I asked Breitbart, via Web chat, for his reaction to Sherrod's lawsuit threat. He declined to comment directly, instead sending me a series of quotations from others evidently meant to demonstrate the righteousness of his cause. One was from Sherrod herself, delivered to CNN's Tony Harris on July 20: "The NAACP has not tried to contact me one time and they are the reason why this happened. They got into a fight with the Tea Party, and all of this came out as a result of that."
Considering what happened last time Breitbart quoted Sherrod with limited context, you'd think his lawyers would advise him against this line of defense.
Shirley Sherrod Vows to Sue Andrew Breitbart Over Racism Smear