Shirley Sherrod says she will sue conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart posted a heavily edited speech that Sherrod delivered at an NAACP event. The portion of the speech, along with commentary on Breitbart's blog, misleadingly portrays Sherrod as a racist. The full version of the tape, however, paints a completely different story (see here).
It is unclear what type of action Sherrod will bring, but she will probably sue for libel. In order to prevail, she will have to prove that Breitbart acted with actual malice. This standard requires that Sherrod prove that Breitbart published information about her that he knew was false or that he acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Although this is normally a tough standard, Sherrod might prevail, given the circumstances of the scandal. It will be difficult, however, given the First Amendment interests at stake.
Stronger Case Against the USDA
Sherrod probably has an even stronger lawsuit against the government (unless she is a "political appointee," which would change this analysis significantly; update below). USDA officials forced her out of her government job without due process of law. She was not given the opportunity to explain herself, nor did her supervisors listen to the full speech before demanding her resignation.
Federal statutes and constitutional law provide procedural protections for government employees who face potential discharge. Although Sherrod has not indicated that she will sue the government, she would probably have an even better chance with that litigation.
Links to this article: Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, Sherrod's Chances
Update: Readers here and elsewhere have made very good points. First, some readers have argued that Sherrod should not sue the government because she can make a stronger statement in a litigation against Breitbart. After all, the government has apologized and offered her another position. I do not question the soundness of those claims. Nonetheless, saying that a particular course of action is stronger from a legal perspective does not mean that the plaintiff should actually take that path.
Second, at least one reader at The Atlantic has pointed out that Sherrod was a "political appointee." If this is true, then her chances against the government under any legal theory are sharply diminished. This does not alter the difficulty of a libel action against Breitbart. Both paths represent an uphill battle.