WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been subpoenaed in a lawsuit filed against the late blogger Andrew Breitbart.
Former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod filed the lawsuit against Breitbart and his colleague Larry O’Connor in 2011, a year after Breitbart posted an edited video of Sherrod, who is black, supposedly making racist remarks. She sued Breitbart, O’Connor and an unnamed defendant for defamation and emotional distress after USDA officials asked her to resign and the video ignited a racial firestorm.
It later came out that the video had been edited and Sherrod’s words had been taken out of context and were an attempt at racial reconciliation.
Lawyers for Sherrod and O’Connor said Friday that they had subpoenaed Vilsack for deposition earlier this week. They did so after U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said in a hearing Monday that Vilsack’s testimony could speed up the conclusion of the case. The USDA referred calls to the Justice Department, which did not respond to a request to confirm that Vilsack had been subpoenaed.
When Sherrod’s full speech to an NAACP group earlier that year came to light, it became clear that her remarks about an initial reluctance to help a white farmer decades ago were not racist but an attempt at telling a story of racial reconciliation. Once that was obvious, Sherrod received public apologies from the administration — even from President Barack Obama himself — and an offer to return to the Agriculture Department, which she declined.
Sherrod’s lawyers have been pushing the government to release more documents and emails in an effort to get more information on her ouster. At one point, the judge said that deposing Vilsack, who has said he alone made the decision to seek Sherrod’s resignation, might be a quicker route to the information.
The case is one of the first high-profile federal lawsuits to test bloggers’ freedom of speech rights, and large news organizations including The New York Times Co., The Washington Post Co. and Dow Jones & Company have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the suit.
Breitbart died unexpectedly in 2012, but his wife, Susannah, has been substituted as a defendant. Sherrod’s lawyers say the unnamed defendant is the person who they believe passed the video on to Breitbart, though the person’s identity remains unknown.
Sherrod’s lawsuit says the incident affected her sleep and caused her back pain. It contends that she was damaged by having her “integrity, impartiality and motivations questioned, making it difficult (if not impossible) for her to continue her life’s work assisting poor farmers in rural areas” even though she was invited to return to the department.
Lawyers for the bloggers argue the blog post was opinion and did not defame Sherrod.