On July 19, 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ordered Sherrod’s resignation from her job as a Georgia rural development official after learning about a video of Sherrod making supposedly racist remarks. On Tuesday, the U.S. District Court will hold the first hearing in Sherrod’s defamation case against the conservative blogger who posted the video.
The video on Andrew Breitbart’s website turned out to be edited, and when Sherrod’s full speech to an NAACP group earlier that year came to light, it became clear that her remarks about an initial reluctance to help a white farmer were not racist but an attempt at telling a story of racial reconciliation. Once that was obvious to everyone, Sherrod received public apologies from the administration – even from President Barack Obama himself – and an offer to come back to the USDA, which she declined.
Sherrod is now suing Breitbart, his employee Larry O’Connor and an unnamed “John Doe” defendant for “defamation, false light and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Sherrod’s lawyers say the unnamed defendant is the person who they believe passed the video on to Breitbart.
The suit asks for damages but does not specify an amount. The complaint says the incident has affected Sherrod’s sleep and caused her back pain. It contends that she was damaged by having her “integrity, impartiality and motivations questioned, making it difficult (if not impossible) for her to continue her life’s work assisting poor farmers in rural areas” even though she was invited to come back to the Agriculture Department.
Lawyers for Breitbart and O’Connor have called the suit an assault on free speech and charge that Sherrod is seeking “revenge” on Breitbart because she does not like his politics. In one brief, they quote Sherrod saying on CNN shortly after she was ousted that Breitbart is “one person I’d like to get back at.”
Breitbart and O’Connor have asked that the case be dismissed under a new District of Columbia statute that aims to prevent the silencing of critics through lawsuits. They also have asked for it to be moved to California, where they both reside.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon is also expected to look at court jurisdiction. Sherrod originally filed the case in the District of Columbia Superior Court, but Breitbart’s lawyers asked to have it tried in federal court. Leon’s decision to hold a procedural hearing in the case Tuesday may be a sign that he intends to keep it there.
Reached by telephone Monday, Sherrod said she couldn’t talk because of the ongoing case. In a statement released when the suit was filed in February, she said the case is “about how quickly, in today’s Internet media environment, a person’s good name can become ‘collateral damage’ in an overheated political debate.”
Breitbart’s original posting last July showed clips of a March 2010 speech to an NAACP group in which Sherrod talked about her reluctance to help a white farmer who came to her more than two decades ago when she worked at a farm aid nonprofit group. The video was posted amid ongoing friction between the NAACP and the tea party movement, each of which were accusing the other of having racist elements among their ranks.
Sherrod said the man was acting “superior” to her and she debated whether to help him.
“I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land,” Sherrod said in the speech. “I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”
Breitbart said at the time that the video showed the NAACP condoning racist comments from a government official.
The full video, however, shows Sherrod explaining to the audience how she eventually became friends with the farmer and helped him save his land from foreclosure.
Breitbart has not stayed away from controversy since the Sherrod incident. In May, he posted a lewd photo of Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., that had been captured from the congressman’s Twitter account. The posting and resulting media firestorm led Weiner to resign from Congress.
As for Sherrod, she has been in recent talks with the Agriculture Department about doing contract work helping with minority outreach. Vilsack has said he wants to use community organizations to make sure federal funding is reaching people who have historically complained of discrimination.