Shirley Sherrod’s missing that leg she needs to stand on
I’m not exactly surprised that Shirley Sherrod is planning to sue conservative blogger, Andrew Breitbart, but I do find the whole affair troubling. Liberals and enemies of Breitbart are excited by the news, but I think they fail to grasp its implications.
First off, should bloggers face lawsuits for posting misleading information about political figures or anyone else for that matter?
In Britain, libel laws are so lax that bloggers and others in the media are effectively censored by the threat posed by potential lawsuits. Often just the threat of a lawsuit is enough to shut down a potentially controversial report. Whether or not Breitbart was right or wrong to post the video, should he face civil penalties for doing so? What repercussions might this have on the blogosphere and the American media writ large? What does this say about the state of free speech in America?
Second, Sherrod is very unlikely to win her suit in the first place. As a public figure making public remarks, suing for defamation becomes extremely difficult and with good reason. As Ed Morrissey notes:
Sherrod is a public official, which makes that kind of lawsuit darned near impossible. Breitbart used the clip to criticize the NAACP, not Sherrod directly, although she certainly came into the line of fire. People are allowed to criticize public officials in harsh and even unfair terms, especially when they make public remarks.
A court is not likely to look favorably on this for another reason — Sherrod’s public statements about Breitbart. She accused him of being pro-slavery, which is a ridiculous and demagogic attack. Even if a court somehow found that Breitbart acted with malice specifically towards Sherrod to a level that overcomes the right to criticize public officials and that he lied about Sherrod specifically in doing so, under those same terms Breitbart would have a countercase against Sherrod. Otherwise, Breitbart has become enough of a public figure that Sherrod’s statements about him would probably not be actionable, either.
Which leaves us with a whole lot of sound and fury. Breitbart will come out of the mess with more publicity and a stronger brand. Sherrod will have her extended fifteen minutes of fame. And the Obama administration will try to quietly navigate the sidelines, hoping desperately that the focus stays on Breitbart and not on the fact that it was the USDA that actually forced Sherrod out.
In the end, I doubt this will add up to anything more than some extra filler for the chattering class’s slow summer.