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Shirley Sherrod: Does she have a case against Andrew Breitbart?

Shirley Sherrod said Thursday that she 'will definitely sue' Andrew Breitbart over the video that falsely portrayed her as a racist. The lawsuit could be a landmark for the blogosphere.

By Staff writer / July 29, 2010

Ousted Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod listens during a panel discussion at the National Association of Black Journalists Annual Convention Thursday in San Diego. Ms. Sherrod said Thursday she will sue conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart who posted an edited video of her making racially tinged remarks last week.

Gregory Bull/AP

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Atlanta

Shirley Sherrod, the former Agriculture Department official who was falsely accused of giving a racist address to the NAACP, said Thursday that she is planning to take legal action against Andrew Breitbart, the man who published the heavily edited video that caused the uproar.

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The prospect of Ms. Sherrod, the no-nonsense former rural development director for the Agriculture Department in Georgia, taking on one of the bulwarks of the conservative blogosphere could rekindle the race debate that largely flared out after Sherrod was vindicated.

Moreover, in a time when hyperpartisan Internet blogs and cable news channels have begun to echo the pamphleteer days of America's founding – when partisans used phrases like "syphilitic bastard" against political opponents – the case could become a landmark, beginning to define the limits of the largely unchallenged Internet press.

"Vigorous public debate is permitted by the court and people can't be punished for an error made in good faith," says Gene Policinski, director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville. "So there would be an investigation into the good faith aspect of this."

Even without a lawsuit, many Americans are increasingly questioning the veracity of news from online sources such as Mr. Breitbart's Big Government website. "I think we're past those early days [on the Internet] when we're excited to find 400,000 items about thumb tacks, and we're now at the point of [asking], 'Do I believe what I really read about thumb tacks?' " says Mr. Policinski.

Jumping to conclusions

Last week, Mr. Breitbart published on his website a 2-1/2 minute clip of a video showing Sherrod at an NAACP luncheon, talking about how she did not use the full force of her office to help a white farmer. The clip set off a furor, resulting in Sherrod's forced resignation, tendered via BlackBerry from the side of a road.

A full airing of the video, however, showed that Sherrod, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, was making a point about her own journey – how she has stopped stereotyping based on race and realized that the greatest inequality in America today is class. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Obama both apologized to Sherrod, and offered her another job in the Agriculture Department.

She has not accepted the job, and she is not satisfied, saying Thursday to a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists in San Diego that, "I will definitely sue."

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