Is Lawsuit About Defamation, or Shutting Up the Right?

A battle over race, fraud, and character will be decided in a District of Columbia Superior Court, and the outcome threatens to chill a fledgling conservative movement, observers say.

Shirley Sherrod, a former Obama administration official, is suing new media mogul Andrew Breitbart for igniting a political firestorm she claims burned her good name and inflicted emotional distress.

But Breitbart, who runs several conservtive websites, and congressional supporters say the action is a nuisance lawsuit that is funded by liberals to squelch constitutionally protected free speech and conservative voices.

The drama initially unfolded last summer as a new Tea Party came to power amid cries of racism from the Left.

Breitbart sought to rebuff the claims by airing a video of a speech given by Sherrod that he said showed positive reactions to racism and discrimination against a white farmer by members of one of the Left’s most valuable allies, the NAACP.

Although Sherrod says the tape was heavily edited and that her speech was meant to instruct against racism, retribution from within her own ranks was swift, and she says she was fired after a call from the White House was made to her employer at the Agriculture Department.

Although she was later offered a better job within the agency, Sherrod declined to accept it and seven months later is suing Breitbart for damages.

Sherrod has declined to speak on the civil action publicly, but in a written statement said, “This lawsuit is not about politics or race.  It is not about right versus left, the NAACP, or the Tea Party.  It is about how quickly, in today’s Internet media environment, a person’s good name can become collateral damage in an overheated political debate,” Sherrod said.

But Breitbart says it’s no longer about any of that.

It’s all about Pigford, he says.

That obscure class action lawsuit filed by black farmers in 1997 against the federal government now known as Pigford has so far cost taxpayers $2.5 billion, and Breitbart says it’s his investigation into possible corruption in winning the settlement payments that has spurred Sherrod to move forward with a separate lawsuit.

“I find it extremely telling that this lawsuit was brought almost seven months after the alleged incidents that caused a national media frenzy occurred,” Breitbart said.

“It is no coincidence that this lawsuit was filed one day after I held a press conference revealing audio proof of orchestrated and systemic Pigford fraud.  I can promise you this:  Neither I, nor my journalistic websites, will or can be silenced by the institutional Left, which is obviously funding this lawsuit.  I welcome the judicial discovery process, including finding out which groups are doing so,” Breitbart said.

As Breitbart was going public with his investigation, HUMAN EVENTS also reported in September that the Pigford settlement was being used as a billion-dollar slush fund doling out what critics described as reparations for slavery.

Instead of payments going to a couple thousand farmers in the original suit, nearly 90,000 now stand to receive $200,000 each.  That’s in conflict with the actual number of black farmers that existed at the time, with official federal government numbers ranging from 18,000 to 27,000.

Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa), told HUMAN EVENTS this week the settlement is “rife with fraud” and the corruption continues to grow, which means Congress will likely be asked again to appropriate more money.

“It was set up to be fraudulent,” King said.  “Town hall” meetings are being held all over the South to recruit even more “farmers” into the settlement, King said. 

“They are running up the numbers and it’s just appalling,” King charged.  “Organizers are saying you are a farmer if you ever had a houseplant, you’re a farmer if you ever mowed your lawn.  This is your 40 acres and a mule.  This is reparation.”

John W. Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, told The Root, an African-American publication, in a Feb. 17 article, that Breitbart was part of “a group of people who don’t want to see black people receive a dime.”

“Why is it just black people that they portray as being so bad?” Boyd said.  “It just seems to me that every time you raise an issue related to blacks in this country, the far-right wing tries to say that it’s somehow fraudulent,” Boyd said.

“They keep saying that they don’t know where all these black farmers came from.  Every African-American in this country is only two or three generations away from a farm—that’s where we come from,” Boyd said.

As tens of thousands of black Americans who have made a claim on the settlement wait for a share of the pie, Boyd says that payout is now in danger because of the conservative blogger.

But Breitbart says his investigation will ensure that those entitled to the money will actually get their fair share.

“I am determined to obtain justice for the truly and legitimately discriminated against American black farmers, who have heretofore been denied justice by the USDA and the Pigford case,” Breitbart said.

“I will simultaneously continue to fight relentlessly against the efforts of those who would use these working American farmers to defraud the American taxpayer to the tune of billions of dollars.  This new lawsuit will not stop the American public from finding out what is really going on, who is directly culpable, and the critical role of the Pigford claimant in all off this,” Breitbart said.

King predicts Breitbart will prevail in the defamation lawsuit.  “If the White House ordered her firing, then who is at fault?  Not Andrew Breitbart,” King said.  “If she had taken her job back when it was offered, there would be no damages.”

“To me, Breitbart ran the videotape to show the level of racism within the NAACP and how they reacted to her speech,” King said.  “I think that is clearly demonstrated.”

“Does it shut down any news outlet that is critical of anyone on the Left?  It looks to me like that is the basis of the lawsuit,” King said.