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Shirley Sherrod sues Andrew Breitbart over video he posted that led USDA to fire her

Former USDA official Shirley Sherrod has filed a defamation lawsuit seeking unspecified damages against conservative Web gadfly Andrew Breitbart.

February 14, 2011|By James Oliphant | Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Shirley Sherrod has filed a defamation suit against Andrew Breitbart, the conservative gadfly she alleges triggered her firing by the Obama administration and ignited a national debate on race and reverse discrimination.

Sherrod was the Georgia director for rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture until last June, when Breitbart posted online a heavily edited video excerpt of her speaking to a Georgia civil-rights group in which Sherrod, an African American woman, suggested that she once discriminated against a white farmer seeking help.

The resulting tumult led the USDA to ask for Sherrod's resignation. But once the entire video was made public, it became clear that Sherrod was talking about overcoming her own racial prejudices.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House officials apologized to Sherrod and offered her a high-level post at the USDA -- and President Obama spoke to her for several minutes over the phone. Sherrod turned down the offer. Sherrod filed the suit in Superior Court in the District of Columbia and is represented by a litigator from a top-shelf law firm, Kirkland & Ellis.

"Although the defamatory blog post authored by Defendant Breitbart purported to show video proof that Mrs. Sherrod exhibited racism in performance of her USDA job," states the complaint, posted Monday by the website Talking Points Memo, the video Breitbart used was an excerpt "from a much longer speech by Mrs. Sherrod that demonstrated exactly the opposite."

As a result of Breitbart's actions, the complaint says, Sherrod has suffered "enduring damage to her reputation, as well as emotional distress and financial damages from her loss of employment at USDA."

The lawsuit does not request a specific award and seeks punitive damages. It also requests that Brietbart and his company remove all "defamatory language and video" from his blog at BigGovernment.com -- as well as from YouTube.

Breitbart was served with the suit late last week while attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

In response, Breitbart's media company released a statement that said, in part: "The lawsuit . . . does not name as co-Defendants President Barack Obama, the USDA and USDA head Tom Vilsack, even though it is they who fired [Sherrod], and who, according to [Sherrod] herself, denied her due process.

"Mr. Breitbart categorically rejects the transparent effort to chill his constitutionally protected free speech and, to reiterate, looks forward to exercising his full and broad discovery rights. Mr. Breitbart is absolutely confident of being fully vindicated."

In October, the Los Angeles Times reported that White House and USDA officials, fearful of the escalating fallout from the story, didn't know the facts surrounding Sherrod's video remarks and had not seen the full speech before moving to, first, place her on leave before, ultimately, firing her.

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