After assessing her options, Shirley Sherrod came out swinging last week. Andrew Breitbart threw the first punch. Now, Sherrod is counterpunching and taking it to the next level. She says she will “definitely” file a lawsuit against Breitbart. The fight has officially begun. I wonder how Breitbart feels with the shoe on the other foot. Everyone from President Obama, NAACP President Ben Jealous, Agriculture Secretary Vislack and Bill O’Reilley at Fox News backed down, apologized and got out of the ring. That’s not so with BigGovernment.com and Andrew Breitbart. Yet, is a law suit a viable option for her?
We know the fray began when Andrew Breitbart claimed to have a tape showing Shirley Sherrod making racist comments at a NAACP local meeting. While Breitbart claims he intended to expose racism in the NAACP, an apparently not so inconsequential mishap was the firing of Sherrod. Well, if you shoot a loaded gun into a crowd, someone is bound to be hurt. Of course, later details reveal her speech was about redemption and helping others regardless of race. Breitbart’s much edited videotape was played first on Fox News showing Ms. Sherrod in a bad and false light spewing apparently racist remarks. This is the part where the law suit comes in.
As a lawyer, I know that defamation cases are extremely challenging and difficult to prove and to win. When Sherrod sues Breitbart, her case will by no means be a slam dunk, although it may appear so to many segments of the public. She must prove that he intentionally used the misleading tape and knew its accurate context. Showing what he knew and when he knew it is the key.
I’ve read comments on Twitter condemning Ms. Sherrod’s decision to sue saying that she sues everyone from the Agriculture Department to now Breitbart. So, what’s wrong with her decision to sue? Our court system is intended to redress and right a wrong. Coincidentally, her case against the Agriculture Department was settled in her favor. If Sherrod can prove that Breitbart wronged her legally, he should be held liable and made to pay. Yet, I suspect Shirley Sherrod is not suing solely for money but for the principle. I used to cringe when a client said they wanted to sue for the principle. This time, I’m not cringing. The media including Andrew Breitbart and Fox News owes the public a duty to tell the truth by reporting fairly and accurately. You can’t manufacture and invent the news.
Regardless of the outcome of her legal case, we can all take action now to make the media do the right thing. We can hold the media accountable and support fairness and accuracy in reporting at Fox News. Please write:
Dear Fox News, we support fairness and accuracy in reporting the news. The recent story about Shirley Sherrod was neither fair nor accurate. Please stop reporting inaccurate and unfair news. Send directly to comments@FoxNews.com. It’s the principle.
Debbie Hines founded and blogs @ Legalspeaks.com on race, law, women and politics.
Photo of Ms. Sherrod courtesy of WikiMedia