Stossel Defamation Ruling Gives Shirley Sherrod a Legal Leg to Stand On

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A federal appeals court ruled to allow a defamation case against TV news de-bunker John Stossel to move forward -- a ruling that could mean bad news for conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who posted a tightly-edited segment of a speech by Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod that made it sound as if she were confessing to racist acts.

The Stossel case revolves around a 2007 report on ABC's 20/20 about televangelist Rev. Frederick Price. In painting Price as a greedy braggart, Stossel used a video clip that appeared to show him boasting about his vast material wealth. The clip was actually a portion of a sermon in which Price preached against greed by adopting the character of a wealthy man.

Price's defamation suit against Stossel was initially disallowed on the grounds that Stossel used the misleading clip to make an accurate point -- that Price is extremely rich. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that "the context in which Price's words were presented materially changed the words' meaning." The question now turns to whether Stossel (who now works for Fox Business Network) and his producers knew they were misrepresenting the nature of the clip. If so, Price will be able to argue that their actions constituted "actual malice," something that public figures must establish to prove defamation.

Price's saga neatly parallels the tribulations endured by Sherrod, who delivered a speech to the NAACP about the personal transformation that allowed her to leave behind her youthful hostility toward and distrust of white people. By editing the video clip of her speech, Breitbart made it appear as though Sherrod was bragging about having denied help to a white farmer while working for the federal government. Sherrod says she plans to sue, and it should be easy enough for her to establish damages, since Breitbart's posting quickly led to her firing. (Sherrod recently turned down an offer of a new job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)
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