- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 29, 2010

Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department employee whose hasty dismissal by the Obama administration sparked a national uproar over race, said Thursday that she will sue the conservative blog mogul who posted the misleading video excerpt that led to her removal.

Mrs. Sherrod made the announcement about legal action against Andrew Breitbart on Thursday in San Diego at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, although analysts in media law told The Washington Times that she will have a very hard time winning a case.

“I will definitely do it,” Mrs. Sherrod said, when asked at the convention whether she was considering taking legal action against Mr. Breitbart.

Mr. Breitbart “had to know that he was targeting me,” Mrs. Sherrod said. “At this point, he hasn’t apologized. I don’t want it at this point, and he’ll definitely hear from me.”

In the excerpt, Mrs. Sherrod appears to be proudly telling a Georgia NAACP chapter that she did not help a white farmer. In the full video, she spoke of racial reconciliation and lessons she learned about herself from the experience with the white farmer, who backed Mrs. Sherrod in the ensuing public furor.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has apologized to Mrs. Sherrod for demanding her dismissal without seeing the whole tape and has offered her another job. Mrs. Sherrod has yet to say whether she will accept one.

She also has publicly denounced Mr. Breitbart as a “vicious” racist who wants to enslave all black Americans.

“I think he would like to get us stuck back in the times of slavery. That’s where I think he’d like to see all black people end up again,” she told CNN last week.

Mr. Breitbart did not respond to e-mail or a voice message from The Washington Times. Mr. Breitbart has said he did not edit the video and that it was President Obama’s Agriculture Department that fired Mrs. Sherrod, not him.

Mr. Obama waded into the Sherrod flap again Thursday, saying in a speech to the National Urban League that she “deserves better than what happened to her last week.” In an appearance with ABC’s “The View” that aired Thursday, Mr. Obama blamed the media for playing up what he dubbed a “phony controversy.” However, he didn’t blame the media alone, saying “a lot of people overreacted, including people in my administration.”

However, specialists in the laws covering defamation and depiction in a false light - the obvious avenues for a legal case here - were skeptical that Mrs. Sherrod could win such a lawsuit, and one even guessed that Mr. Breitbart should be celebrating.

“I would guess that Mrs. Sherrod is going to be seen as a public official,” said Sandra Baron, executive director for the Media Law Resource Center. And as a public official, Mrs. Sherrod will have a “fairly significant burden to bear in order to be able to win any kind of suit against Mr. Breitbart.”

Because of First Amendment free-press protections, public people must do more than prove someone published “facts” that were false and harmed their reputations. Mrs. Sherrod would have to prove Mr. Breitbart acted with a “reckless disregard for the truth” and posted the video “knowing it was false,” she explained.

“It’s not meant to be easy, and Ms. Sherrod is not going to have an easy time, I suspect,” Ms. Baron said.

While defamation cases are very difficult to win, added Robert Cox, spokesman for the Media Bloggers Association, Mr. Breitbart will thrive on all the publicity he will get as the case proceeds.

“If I were Breitbart, right now I’d probably be on my second bottle of champagne,” said Mr. Cox, who said that since bloggers thrive on publicity, there will be much “envy” of him.

Mrs. Sherrod also must prove financial harm, and Mr. Cox, who has dealt with many media lawsuits, noted that she has already been offered her job back. “I don’t see how she’s going to be able to show financial harm when she’s actually making money on this,” he said.



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