Shirley Sherrod has a Case, Intends to Sue Breitbart (…But, Should She?)

The sad political-media fiasco that brought about the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod from her USDA post is far from over.  At the crux of the controversy is a video clip, posted by conservative political operative Andrew Breitbart, featuring Sherrod speaking before a NAACP crowd.  Over the next 24 hours, Breitbart’s “Video Proof” of  “Sherrod’s racist tale” – a story of a black bureaucrat discriminating against a white farmer — reverberated through the conservative blogosphere, raising the ire of the usual suspects at Fox News, which, in turn, led to Sherrod’s hastily forced resignation.

After 48 hours, once it became clear that Breitbart’s post clearly misrepresented Sherrod’s broader message, the former claimed himself the victim, and the latter became the recipient of many, well deserved, apologies. 

Among the apologies yet to be tendered is one from Breitbart, himself, which won’t be forthcoming.  And that’s just as well, because, according to an ABC News report, she  doesn’t want one.  Rather, Sherrod would prefer that Breitbart explain his actions in court.

“[Breitbart] hasn’t apologized.  I don’t want it at this point…,” Sherrod explained to attendees of the National Association of Black Journalists meeting, July 29, in San Diego.  When asked if she intended to pursue legal action over the matter, Sherrod responded, “I will definitely do it.”

Sherrod’s “most viable” lawsuit…

Some instinctually assume that Sherrod would pursue a claim of defamation against Breitbart and/or Fox News.  John Dean explains, invoking the sound opinion of Professor Johnathan Turley, “… the most viable lawsuit Sherrod appears to have based on the known facts:  a suit for what is called false-light invasion of privacy.”

Both, Dean and Professor Turley, note that the distinction between a false-light claim and one of defamation is subtle enough for many state courts to ignore it.  That said, the main difference between them is that a claim of defamation “requires a specific, false factual statement, whereas a claim of false-light requires”…

(a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed.

Though this describes Breitbart’s actions quite well, Sherrod would still face an uphill, exorbitantly expensive and lengthy legal battle to make it stick.  Sherrod’s status as a public official/figure also complicates matters; as such, the U.S. Supreme Court’s First-Amendment guidelines dictate that her claim must meet a heavy burden.

Dean explains:

…this Supreme-Court- created constitutional requirement has come to mean that for a defendant to be liable when sued by a public person, the statement at issue must have been made with the knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard to whether it was true or false. Furthermore, this knowledge — amounting to “actual malice” — must be established by clear and convincing evidence.

Sherrod would also have to prove damages were incurred, the impact of which, in the eyes of the court, were lessened the moment Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offered to hire Sherrod back on at the USDA – a position she has yet to accept.  Sam Stein published a related piece quoting several “prominent First Amendment lawyers” suggesting, because Sherrod’s reputation was so swiftly restored (BTW, hat-tip to CNN), that it could harm her case.

…and why she shouldn’t bother (…in court)

Despite the above obstacles all of Stein’s experts are of the opinion that Sherrod does indeed have a valid claim against Breitbart.  The above mentioned Turley also concurs, as does Dean.  But it is Dean who strongly suggests Sherrod not go through with it (emphasis added):

Sherrod should be advised (and I say this based on a lot of personal experience) that conservatives like Breitbart will not play nicely merely because they have been taken to court. These authoritarian personalities, and those who share their thinking, go ballistic when confronted with legal actions. They resist being held accountable, and feel particularly threatened by legal actions. What Breitbart will do if Sherrod files a lawsuit against him is to quickly create a legal defense fund, with the support and financing of like-thinking conservatives, and he will hire as nasty an attorney as is available in his tribe. Soon, he will be using the legal process to harass Sherrod by digging into every inch of her life, and perhaps even countersuing Sherrod for claims as to which she has no knowledge. It will be ugly, and she must plan on several years of intense unpleasantness.

… [Breitbart] would no doubt celebrate a lawsuit — until he lost it, and then would claim, in fact, that he had won.

I think Dean is offering Sherrod some sound advice.

As enjoyable as it would be Breitbart undergo the scrutiny of trial discovery — and his track record of misrepresentative media postings and statements all but ensure the lawsuit would make it that far — Sherrod’s potential suit, even if it were to be successful, is unlikely to yield a satisfactory outcome beyond what has already occurred; that is, Breitbart’s Sherrod hatchet job, unlike his previous efforts, quickly and publicly blew up in his face.  The mainstream media outlets that fell for the scam will, it is hoped, think twice before doing it again.

They’re unfortunate circumstances, to be sure, and I imagine Sherrod as the type of person whom is loath to back down from a fight.  But as Dean concludes, a lawsuit is not the only means with which to fight:

…Andrew Breitbart, the Obama Administration, and the NAACP have given her a meaningful public presence. She has an important and timely message to send, and now, she also has a commanding presence on the public stage through which to share it. She should write a book and lecture, and share her experiences.

Breitbart’s narrative is merely a segment of a much broader synical conservative political strategy:  the latest incarnation of the “Southern Strategy,” exploiting the irrational fears of white voters with invented racial memes (immigration is another Southern Strategy mainstay).  Sherrod’s “timely message” — that our racial prejudices distract from broader societal ills based in structural economic inequality — needs to be spread far and wide.  When enough people wake up to it, the influence of the ‘Breitbarts‘ of the world will be diminished, relegated to the dark corners of the right-wing blogosphere where they belong.

Shirley Sherrod image via U.S. Department of Agriculture by way of Wikimedia Commons.


Bette M.
Bette M7 years ago

Chris L.
"A good example would be the left admitting it had all the facts in this case to protect this woman and chose to do nothing. The NAACP had the tape and sat on it while she was humiliated. Perhaps they did it to let a case emerge against Breitbart."

They left is always looking for lawsuits especially in racial matters. It's their bread & butter crusade. An incident can be as small as the dot of an eye & soon mushroom into an national scandal............The left feeds on it.

It's all about continual embarrasement & money. Seemingly they come off as never doing any wrong themselves.

Plant & protect trees for life.......................

Chris L.
Chris L7 years ago

Erik what are you taking responsiblity for on the Left? Show us by example and we can learn. Demonstrate what it looks like when the left takes responsiblity for its actions and the rest of us can learn by example. We haven't seen any examples, so how do you expect us to learn from your wisdom?

A good example would be the left admitting it had all the facts in this case to protect this woman and chose to do nothing. The NAACP had the tape and sat on it while she was humiliated. Perhaps they did it to let a case emerge against Breitbart, perhaps they just didn't think, gee this was our event, we tape our events, shouldn't we review the tape before we CONDEMN HER??? The president again acts against people before having the facts. Yet, others he has the facts and does not act. All very interesting when you think about it.

With the age of the Internet, lots of embarrasing tapes, pictures, and edited documents are appearing and few people are getting compensated for there embarrasment. However, in this instance the NAACP who has been screaming about the hateful right participated when they had the BEST chance of stopping it because the possesed the original, unedited, untampered document. Why didn't they act. We don't know. They have never made a statement explaining why they knew they had the tape and didn't check it to determine the validity of the one that was issued. The people who were there never came forward with the transformation story. Interesting.

Bette M.
Bette M7 years ago

Francis Preston says
Aug 16, 2010 2:50 AM
Didn't she already sue the dept. of agriculture in another lawsuit collected $300,000 for personal injury and close to a million for the case awards too??? She knows how to make a buck out of the system. Is she really the victem here???

It's all about the money$$$$$$$$$$!!

Plant & protect trees for life....................

Francis Preston
Past Member 7 years ago

Didn't she already sue the dept. of agriculture in another lawsuit collected $300,000 for personal injury and close to a million for the case awards too??? She knows how to make a buck out of the system. Is she really the victem here???

Andrew M.
Andrew May7 years ago

Forgiveness is for the benefit of the person doing the forgiving, not for the benefit of the perpetrator. Whether or not Ms. Sherrod elects to forgive Breitbart for his heinous behavior is her private, personal decision. Her decision to sue the bast*rd for his garbage behavior does not contradict her moral freedom to forgive or not to forgive. Sue him, Ms. Sherrod, on behalf of all of us, and we'll have the collective pleasure of watching the rest of the slime, who surely have been waiting to see how things turn out, slither back into their dank pits to avoid the same fate.

Nikolas Karman
Nikolas K7 years ago

to forgive is the sign of someone who is in control of themselves.

Melissah Chadwick
Melissah C7 years ago


Debi S.
Debi S7 years ago

I believe a lawsuit would help teach Andrew Breitbart a valuable lesson! It's time for the people who are abused to fight back in a BIG way! It's incredible to believe that the President and those in high positions would act/react in such a drastic manner without full disclosure and a full investigation of the facts! How ridiculous that our leaders are so ill advised.

Philippa P.
Philippa P7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Past Member
Past Member 7 years ago

The truth will out! Of course she should sue!