from the give-it-up dept
Last year, we had a brief discussion about whether or not Andrew Breitbart’s actions toward Shirley Sherrod represented defamation. If you (lucky you!) missed this story last year, it involved Breitbert publishing a video of Sherrod giving a talk. The clip was taken totally out of context, and thus suggested Sherrod favored people based on race, when the point of the speech was actually exactly the opposite. However, very quickly after the video came out (and Sherrod was forced out of her government job), all of this came out. If anything, the backlash got a lot more attention than the original story did. It hurt Andrew Breitbart’s credibility, and turned Sherrod (who was offered her job back) into a huge public platform to discuss a variety of issues.
In other words, the marketplace of ideas actually worked without involving the courts. Those who did wrong were punished, and those who were wronged were rewarded.
But… sometimes the legal system is just too tempting, and many months later, Sherrod has followed through on earlier threats and sued Breitbart for defamation. The lawsuit is a longshot, to say the least. Breitbart has a bunch of pretty strong defenses and it will be a surprise if he doesn’t prevail. That’s not to support what he did, which was pretty questionable, but to show that you don’t always have to go legal. In discussing the case, Paul Levy points out that the lack of any real damages is an issue:
What Breitbart did was outrageous, and actionable. But what happened after his broadcast is in many ways testimony to the power of the marketplace of ideas to vindicate the truth far better than any lawsuit can do. Sherrod was completely vindicated in the public’s eyes, she was offered her job back or even a promotion. So I wonder whether she has awardable damages, and even more I question the judgment involved in filing the lawsuit.
We live in a litigious society, no doubt. But it’s a bit disturbing how often people feel the need to file a lawsuit “because they can,” without looking at the larger scenario and understanding whether or not it makes sense. Frankly, filing this lawsuit may do a lot more damage to her reputation than anything Breitbart did. She came out of that situation with a much stronger reputation. The same probably won’t be said of the lawsuit.