WASHINGTON (AP) — A colleague of the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart is asking a federal court of appeals to throw out a defamation case brought against him by former government employee Shirley Sherrod, saying the lawsuit violates the blogger’s right to freedom of speech.
Sherrod was ousted from her job as an Agriculture Department rural development official in 2010 after Breitbart posted an edited video of Sherrod, who is black, supposedly making racist remarks. She sued Breitbart, his employee Larry O’Connor and an unnamed defendant for defamation and emotional distress after USDA officials asked her to resign and the video ignited a racial firestorm. Sherrod’s lawyers say the unnamed defendant is the person whom they believe passed the video on to Breitbart, though the person’s identity remains unknown.
Breitbart died unexpectedly a year ago, and his status in the case is unclear as his family does not appear to have notified the court of an estate that can be sued.
The case argued before the court of appeals Friday is one of the first high-profile federal lawsuits to test the freedom of speech rights of bloggers. Backed by large news organizations including the New York Times Co., Washington Post Co. and Dow Jones & Company, Inc., who have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, O’Connor’s lawyers argued to have the case dismissed under a District of Columbia statute that aims to prevent the silencing of critics through lawsuits. A federal district court judge rejected their motion to dismiss, citing timing and jurisdictional issues, prompting the appeal.
The lawyers told the court of appeals that O’Connor and Breitbart, before he died, stood by the content, saying the blog post was opinion.
“What happened here is what happens in journalism every day,” said Bruce Brown, a lawyer for O’Connor.
Sherrod’s lawyers disagree and say dismissal under the District of Columbia statute would violate their right to a trial. The video on 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 decades ago were not racist but an attempt at telling a story of racial reconciliation. Once that was obvious, Sherrod received public apologies from the administration — even from President Barack Obama himself — and an offer to return to the Agriculture Department, which she declined.
Sherrod’s 2011 lawsuit says the incident affected her 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 return to the department.