Shirley Sherrod said Monday that she is "still reeling" from being ousted in a racial firestorm last July. USDA officials asked Sherrod to resign after blogger Andrew Breitbart posted an edited video of comments she had made in a speech earlier in the year.
The clip showed Sherrod, who is black, telling a local NAACP group that she was initially reluctant to help a white farmer save his farm more than two decades ago, long before she worked for USDA. Missing from the clip was the rest of the speech, which was meant as a lesson in racial healing. Sherrod told the crowd she eventually realized her mistake and helped the farmer save his farm.
She later received numerous apologies from the administration, including from President Barack Obama, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked her to return. She declined the offer, but she said at the time she might do some contract work with the department.
Sherrod's lawyer released a statement Monday saying she was suing Breitbart in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for "defamation, false light and infliction of emotional distress." The complaint said Breitbart's video "went viral on the Internet, igniting a national media firestorm" costing Sherrod her job and damaging her reputation.
"This lawsuit is not about politics or race," Sherrod said in the statement released by her lawyer. "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. I strongly believe in a free press and a full discussion of public issues, but not in deliberate distortions of the truth."
The suit asks for damages but does not specify an amount. The complaint says Sherrod has suffered "continued severe emotional distress," affecting her sleep and causing her back pain.
Breitbart has said he released the video to illustrate racism within the NAACP, which earlier had accused the tea party of having racist elements. A statement on Breitbart's website, BigGovernment.com, said he was sued but did not mention Sherrod by name. The statement, titled "Bring it on," said he is "confident of being fully vindicated."
"Mr. Breitbart categorically rejects the transparent effort to chill his constitutionally protected free speech," the statement said.
The lawsuit names Breitbart and his employee Larry O'Connor, who the lawsuit claims posted the video. The suit also names a "John Doe" defendant described as "an individual whose identity has been concealed by the other defendants and who, according to defendant Breitbart, was involved in the deceptive editing of the video clip and encouraged its publication with the intent to defame Mrs. Sherrod."
Breitbart's original posting showed clips of a March 2010 speech to an NAACP group in which Sherrod talked about her reluctance to help the white farmer who came to her more than two decades ago when she worked at a farm aid nonprofit group.
She said the man was acting "superior" to her and she debated whether to help him.
"I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land," Sherrod said in the speech. "I didn't give him the full force of what I could do."
Breitbart said at the time that the video showed the NAACP condoning racist comments from a government official.
What was cut from the video was that Sherrod was telling a story of racial reconciliation and explaining to the audience how she eventually became friends with the farmer and helped him save his land from foreclosure. His situation, she said, "opened my eyes" that whites were struggling just like blacks, and helping farmers wasn't so much about race but was "about the poor versus those who have."
"We have to overcome the divisions that we have," she said.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Sherrod declined to talk about the lawsuit but said she is still looking for work. She said she had spoken with Vilsack in recent months but had not been offered any contract work from USDA.
"I'm not employed and no one's offered me a job anywhere, so I don't know where to look at this point," she said. "I'm just trying to survive."
Vilsack declined to discuss the lawsuit Monday during an unrelated briefing on the federal budget. But he said he hopes to work with Sherrod on a USDA effort to help disadvantaged rural residents apply for government loans.
The first hearing in the case is scheduled for May.