U.S. District Judge Richard Leon issued a series of orders this morning denying motions to dismiss or relocate former U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod's defamation lawsuit against conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart.
Leon denied Breitbart's initial motion to dismiss as well as a special motion to dismiss under Washington's new statute barring strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. Leon did not publish a written opinion along with his orders.
Sherrod is suing Breitbart, Breitbart’s colleague Larry O’Connor and an unnamed defendant over the release of a video clip and accompanying text on Breitbart’s Web site claiming the video offered proof that Sherrod, who is black, discriminated against white farmers. Sherrod, in her complaint, argues Breitbart made defamatory accusations of racism based on a “deceptively edited” clip that was taken out of context.
Breitbart and O’Connor had argued that they were engaging in protected speech under the First Amendment when they posted the clip and comments online. They also argued that if the case is not dismissed, it should be moved to U.S. District Court for Central California because it’s where Breitbart and O’Connor live and work on the Web-based businesses in question.
Leon heard oral arguments on July 19.
Sherrod’s attorney, Thomas Clare of Washington’s Kirkland & Ellis, could not immediately be reached this morning. Breitbart's attorney, Eric Kuwana of Washington's Katten Muchin Rosenman, also could not immediately be reached.
O'Connor's attorney, Bruce Sanford of Washington's Baker & Hostetler, in a statement this morning, reiterated his client's belief that Sherrod "cannot form the basis of a libel action under longstanding American defamation law."
"Anyone who looks at the tape of her speech or the excerpts put up by Andrew Breitbart can see that we are in the realm of pure opinion," he said.
Breitbart and O’Connor are among the first parties in Washington to invoke D.C.'s new anti-SLAPP law, which went into effect March 31 and offers an early remedy, in the form of a special motion to dismiss that stays discovery pending resolution, for defendants who believe they are being sued over protected speech.
Sherrod challenged the applicability of the law in federal court and also argued that the defendants were time-barred from filing.
Sherrod, former Georgia state director for rural development for USDA, filed her lawsuit after the clip of Sherrod speaking at a March 2010 event was posted on Breitbart’s Web site. The clip went viral after it was posted on July 19 and, by the end of the day, Sherrod resigned. When the full video was released, however, Sherrod received a number of apologies, including from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Barack Obama.