Oh, ye of little faith!
Some of you Doubting Thomases out there scoffed (scoffed, I say!) when I suggested last August that Shirley Sherrod had a bona fide libel case against Andrew Breitbart. Well, scoff no more, you doubters! Last week, Sherrod filed a defamation lawsuit against Breitbart, and damned if she didn't have the claws to have him served right in the middle of the ultra-right's mental mass-turbation frenzy, aka the Conservative Political Action Conference in WashDC.
For those who don't remember, or choose to forget, Breitbart is the frat boy punk who deliberately re-spliced a videotape of Sherrod addressing an NAACP conference in March 2010 in which Sherrod told a story on herself as a cautionary tale about how anyone can be susceptible to bigotry. The purpose of her comments was to reaffirm her dedication to equal rights of all Americans, regardless of color, and to admonish her audience that reverse discrimination is as bad as the original bigotry that it seeks to avenge. Being the calculating character assassin he is, Breitbart deliberately edited the video to make it appear that Sherrod was boasting that she'd denied a white tobacco farmer assistance from the federal agency she represented -- just the opposite of Sherrod's real message. I opined at the time that Sherrod had a great case for libel, and now it appears that she's going to file that case.
Of course, Sherrod has no easy task ahead of her. It would take the extensive labors of some very sharp defamation lawyers to make Sherrod's claim stick. It makes sense that, six months having passed since the original slander, Sherrod and her lawyers have been busy pouring foundations for their case. They're no doubt prepared for the dirtiest of legal tricks Breitbart's lawyers can pull -- and with a client like Breitbart, dirty tricks is about all they have. I hope Sherrod's counsel has rented a warehouse for the trainloads of documents they're going to be given during the discovery process.
Sherrod's task, while monumental, is not hopeless. Salon.com's Teresa Cotsirilos interviewed none other than Floyd Abrams, perhaps the foremost First Amendment lawyer in the country. Now, bear in mind that Abrams earns his meat and potatoes by representing the top media outlets in the country in their quest to hang onto their First Amendment rights. He represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, and that alone places him prominently in the pantheon of free press gods. In the Salon interview Abrams affirmed, as I wrote back in August, that if Sherrod can prove "actual malice," she may have a proveable case. "She has to demonstrate not just that he did it, but that he knew what he was doing was false [or] would leave a false impression about what she had said," Abrams said. "If ... she can show that for his political reasons, his ideological reasons, his desire to make a name for himself, or whatever, that he purposely distorted what she said in a way that damaged her, then she might have a serious claim." Abrram's comment begs the question: How could Breitbart possibly edit the video the way he did and not know it was wrong? Of course he knew it. To plead otherwise is to admit that he lacks the critical thinking skills of a sixth-grader.
Breitbart did what he did because he thought he was "bullet-proof" and that he could do whatever he wanted to do in the name of right-wingnut ideology and get away with it. He was trying to out-Beck Glen Beck and, like an irresponsible frat boy tyring to make a name for himself, he ended up actually hurting an innocent person. He deserves the lawsuit Sherrod has filed.
Of course, it's a long way from filing an action against Breitbart and getting anything remotely resembling justice for Shirley Sherrod. Probably the best Sherrod can hope for is that a jury will find in her favor with a pentalty so onerous that Breitbart's media keepers will turn him out, cutting him off from any traditional print forum. But that probably won't happen. What will probably happen is that Breitbart's lawyers will talk him into settling a monetary claim while admitting no wrongdoing, Sherrod will contribute the funds to some dot-org she thinks will work to make bloggers more responsible for what they post (good luck with that!) and the whole episode will fade away.
Whatever happens, don't expect any punditry from the mainstream media. Although they should be publicly and forcefully proclaiming their disdain for and abhorrence of Breitbart, those who rely on the First Amendment for their profits aren't about to damn him for what he's done. This is Shirley Sherrod's fight, and hers alone. I am just grateful that she has more courage than all of my erstwhile colleagues put together.
Update: Andrew Breitbart had the poor taste to die March 1, 2012, thus nullifying Sherrod's lawsuit. I'm sure his family mourns his loss. I do not.