Shirley Sherrod Sues Blogger for Defamation
WASHINGTON (CN) - Shirley Sherrod, who was forced out of her federal job after right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart posted an edited clip of a speech she gave to the NAACP, with his own comments accusing her of racism against whites, has sued Breitbart for defamation. Sherrod lost her job as Georgia's state director of rural development almost immediately after Breitbart posted the heavily edited clip, with comments accusing her of "racism coming from a federal appointee."
In her complaint in D.C. Superior Court, Sherrod says Andrew Breitbart, co-defendant Larry O'Connor and a John Doe edited her 43-minute speech into a 2 minute 36-second clip meant to mislead the public into believing that Sherrod gave preferential treatment to black farmers in doling out federal funds.
The short video, in which Sherrod spoke about her own feelings about helping a poor white farmer, went viral and within days had her pulling her car over at the behest of the White House to "email her resignation from her blackberry," she claims.
The complaint states: "Although the defamatory blog post authored by defendant Breitbart purported to show 'video proof' that Mrs. Sherrod exhibited 'racism' in the performance of her USDA job responsibilities, the short two-minute thirty-six (2:36) second video clip that defendants embedded in the blog post as alleged 'proof' of this defamatory accusation was, in truth, an edited excerpt from a much longer speech by Mrs. Sherrod that demonstrated exactly the opposite. In sharp contrast to the deliberately false depiction that defendants presented in the defamatory blog post, the unabridged speech describes how, in 1986, working for a non-profit group that helped poor farmers, Mrs. Sherrod provided concern and service to a white farmer
who, without her help, would almost certainly have lost his farm in rural Georgia.
"Specifically, defendants defamed Mrs. Sherrod by editing and publishing an intentionally false and misleading clip and added the following statements as a narrative to the clip: 'Mrs. Sherrod admits that in her federally appointed position, overseeing over a billion dollars ... She discriminates against people due to their race.'
"Mrs. Sherrod's speech is 'video evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee and NAACP award recipient.'
"'This federally appointed executive bureaucrat lays out in stark detail, that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions.'
"'In the first video, Sherrod describes how she racially discriminates against a white farmer.'
"Her speech is a 'racist tale.'
"To this day, defendant Breitbart publishes these exact same defamatory statements on his website despite his admitted knowledge of the truth. Indeed, he has subsequently stated that he 'could care less about Shirley Sherrod,' underscoring that Mrs. Sherrod's reputation was, at the very least, expected and accepted collateral damage to his agenda."
In her March 27, 2010 speech at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet, which was filmed by the NAACP, Sherrod told a story from her days as Georgia Field Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a job that involved helping poor farmers keep their land.
She said that in 1986 she helped Roger Spooner, a poor, white farmer save his farm from foreclosure despite initially worrying "whether the Spooners needed her personal attention because she was 'struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land.'"
The story, within the context of the speech, was intended to show that "economic circumstance - not race - was the critical factor in determining whether people needed help," according to the complaint.
"The Spooners have publicly credited Mrs. Sherrod with helping them save their farm and Mrs. Sherrod's assistance to them has resulted in a lifelong friendship between the families," the complaint adds.
Breitbart and O'Connor were given the video of the speech by the John Doe defendant, "an individual whose identity has been concealed by the other defendants and who, according to defendant Breitbart, was involved in the deceptive editing of the video clip and encouraged its publication with the intent to defame Mrs. Sherrod," the complaint states.
Breitbart published "an inflammatory and highly damaging blog post" in July 2010, with the doctored clip of the speech along with "five introductory slides containing false statements of fact regarding Mrs. Sherrod," according to the complaint.
"Ms. Sherrod admits that in her federally appointed position, overseeing over a billion dollars ..." one slide starts.
The next slide finishes the thought: "She discriminates against people due to their race."
Sherrod claims the clip was posted on YouTube by defendant O'Connor.
"With his post and the 'video proof' allegedly embedded within it, defendant Breitbart apparently hoped to embarrass the NAACP and its members by demonstrating that the NAACP had condoned and rewarded 'racism' and 'bigotry' in its ranks by inviting Mrs. Sherrod to speak at its event and applauding her 'racist tale' of interaction with the Spooners," Sherrod says.
Only a day after the White House forced her resignation, the complete video of her speech surfaced, prompting apologies from President Obama and from Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly who said, "So I owe Mrs. Sherrod an apology for not doing my homework, for not putting her remarks into the proper context," according to Sherrod's complaint.
Sherrod was born in Baker County, Ga., in 1947 and grew up working on the family farm. Her father was murdered when she was 17, and the suspect was "a white farmer" who "escaped indictment by an all-white grand jury," according to her complaint.
She says her father's death led her to fight for equality and justice.
She says Breitbart cost her the $113,000 job she had with the USDA and caused her to suffer "serious reputational, financial and professional damage."
Sherrod, who remains unemployed, seeks an injunction forcing Breitbart to take down the blog, and compensatory and punitive damages to defamation, false light and infliction of emotional distress.
She is represented by Thomas Yannucci with Kirkland Ellis.