The Big Chill?
I’m not talking here about one of my favorite movies (and probably my favorite soundtrack of all time). I’m talking about a lawsuit the former USDA official Shirley Sherrod recently filed against conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Mr. Breitbart contends that the suit is an attempt to “chill his constitutionally protected free speech.” Just a quick recap. Sherrod was formerly the USDA’s director of rural development in Georgia. In a speech to the NAACP, Ms. Sherrod talked about an incident where she struggled to convince herself to help a white farmer. In the full context of the speech, Ms. Sherrod used the incident to demonstrate how she overcame her initial reluctance. Breitbart, however, posted a snippet, taken out of context, which portrayed Ms. Sherrod as a racist. Sherrod, who lost her job, and came in for some biting criticism, has now fired back with a libel suit. So, is she trying to chill Breitbart’s “constitutional rights”? Well, I don’t know what her motivation is exactly. But Breitbart may need to review exactly what his rights are. As a public official, Ms. Sherrod has a little less protection than we private citizens do in the libel area. She needs to show not only that Breitbart published false information, but that he did so with knowledge that the information was false. If he did, he’s got no First Amendment protection. So, the case in some respects comes down to two questions: what did he know and when did he know it. If Ms. Sherrod can show that Breitbart posted the out of context snippet knowing it conveyed a false impression, she’ll win. And that won’t violate the constitution.