Sherrod vs. Breitbart: Speech wars

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Making good on a threat she made in July, Shirley Sherrod has sued conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart for defamation.

The lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court on Friday, comes seven months after Breitbart posted an excerpt of a Sherrod speech to the NAACP in which she described struggling to work with a white farmer because of his race. The video quickly went viral, and the Agriculture Department official was pressured to resign that day.

Within hours, media reports revealed that Sherrod's comments were part of a longer speech describing an event that happened 20 years earlier and was intended as a lesson about racial bias and poverty.

"This lawsuit is not about politics or race," Sherrod said in a statement released Monday. "It is not about Right versus Left, the NAACP, or the Tea Party. It is about how quickly, in today's internet media environment, a person's good name can become 'collateral damage' in an overheated political debate."

Sherrod, currently unemployed and living in her home town of Albany, Ga., said Breitbart has never apologized and continues to slur her character.

The court filing - which names Breitbart, producer Larry O'Connor and a "John Doe" who allegedly provided the entire speech to the blogger - claims Sherrod suffered defamation and emotional distress. The suit asks for Breitbart to remove the edited clip of her speech (which, according to the suit, can still be found on his site), an apology and unspecified damages.

Breitbart was served Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting here in D.C., as first reported in the New York Times. In a statement released by his company, Breitbart said, "I can promise you this: neither I, nor my journalistic websites, will or can be silenced by the institutional Left, which is obviously funding this lawsuit."

The statement goes on to say that Breitbart "categorically rejects the transparent effort to chill his constitutionally protected free speech" and is "absolutely confident" of being fully vindicated. The first hearing is scheduled for May 13.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company