'Shop Talk': Should Shirley Sherrod Sue Andrew Breitbart?
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
It's time now for TELL ME MORE's weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael; civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar; syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano, who writes a column called "Ask a Mexican" for the OC Weekly in Orange County, California; and Matthew Continetti, an associate editor for the Weekly Standard magazine.
Jimi, take it away.
Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Hey, thanks, Rebecca. Double R. What's good? This is your first time in.
ROBERTS: Yeah, be easy on me.
Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney, Editor): Welcome to the Barbershop.
Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You ready? So, wait. So, wait, you ready to rock?
ROBERTS: Of course. Born ready.
Mr. IZRAEL: All right, well, let's roll. You know, but you know what? First off, I want to thank everybody welcome to the shop. What's up?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.
Mr. GUSTAVO ARELLANO (Columnist, "Ask a Mexican", OC Weekly): How are you doing, Jimi? What's cracking?
Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Associate Editor, Weekly Standard): What's up, man?
Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know, happy anniversary. You know, a year ago today, President Obama held his now famous or maybe infamous beer summit at the White House. Now, he and Vice President Joe Biden threw back a brewsky with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley, Rebecca.
ROBERTS: Yeah, well, of course, remember, it all started because Professor Gates, who's black, was arrested at his home for disorderly conduct by Sergeant Crowley, who was white. The charges were eventually dropped. But before all that happened, President Obama made comments critical of the Cambridge police and so everybody was invited to sit down together.
It's important to note, by the way, that the president and Professor Gates were previously acquainted, but that didn't really matter because the story ended up exploding with accusations of racist cops and racial profiling and suggestions that the president should just have steered clear of the whole thing.
Here's what Sergeant Crowley had to say after the beer summit concluded.
Sergeant JAMES CROWLEY (Cambridge Police Department): I think what was accomplished was this was a positive step in moving forward as opposed to reliving the events of the past couple of weeks in an effort to move not just the city of Cambridge or two individuals past this event, but the whole country.
Mr. IZRAEL: Wow. Thanks for that, Rebecca. You know, you say the fact that, you know, they know each other and that their acquaintance is incidental, but Matty C., you know what? Me and Obama Obama owes me money from that thing in the place at the time. And, you know...
Mr. CONTINETTI: Surprised you haven't gone to the White House to ask him.
Mr. IZRAEL: I'm saying, he hasn't gotten me out of the ticket I just got, you know, for speeding. Matty, what's up with that? What was it? I mean it's a year later, has anything changed?
Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, the beer summit's behind us. I mean we have to understand why it happened, right? It happened because Obama went out of his way in his press conference to say that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly. And that created a political firestorm for the White House. And this is right at the beginning of a summer in which Obama's approval ratings and a whole host of issues began to decline.
So the White House felt they had to do something to address the damage done. And that was this beer summit. And I think if Obama had repeated - had done another press conference, had the opportunity to do it again, he would never have been perceived to have taken sides in this conflict, which was a local police matter and didn't probably rise to the level of the president of the United States.
Mr. IZRAEL: Gustavo, help me out, man. Are we post-racial yet?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. IZRAEL: Should President Obama take a definitive stance on race relations in America? What do you think, bro?
Mr. ARELLANO: I don't know about definitive stance, although whenever he does see racial inequity out in this country, he should address it. And of course even when he got elected and people started talking about a post-racial society, of course not. I mean the fact with the Sherrod episode and Andrew Breitbart, that shows that there is still a large segment of this of Americans who view racial conspiracies by minorities trying to take over good-minded white folks all the time. It's still happening there.
We have to talk about race all the time. It's that and of course class conflict. Those are the two most taboo subjects. But race I do think is the most explosive one because nobody wants to be accused of being a racist. If you're accused of being a racist that's almost a death nail to your public to any public perception you have. But we have to have these conversations. We should be a more grown up country.
But I do think so many times we act like a bunch of kids, you know, in junior high. Not elementary school or not high school, but junior high when the rumors are the most insidious and repercussions can be also the most dangerous.
Mr. IZRAEL: Gustavo, tell us what you really think, bro.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARELLANO: They laughed at it all.
ROBERTS: Too shy.
Mr. IZRAEL: A-train.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Well, you know, being the civil rights attorney here in the Barbershop, you know...
Mr. IRZAEL: Yes, sir.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: I think it's important, you know, to learn lessons from the whole Skip Gates incident. You know, for me, you know, last year when we talked about it on the Barbershop, you know, I mentioned that, you know, if it was a white Harvard professor who was essentially, you know, being asked to leave his own house so he could get the handcuffs slapped on him, I dont think that we would've, you know, ever seen it. I think that, you know, we had a case here where I do believe that, you know, Joe Crawley did act stupidly.
You know, Barack Obama didnt go out of his way to say that he acted stupidly. He was asked that question point blank and he answered honestly at the time. And it did create a political firestorm, but I think that, you know, here we had somebody who is the head of, you know, the African Center at Harvard University. This wasnt just a black professor. This was somebody at, you know, the elite institution in America, you know, who has, you know, spent the better part of his life and career...
Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...you know, talking about race, you know, being arrested in his own house.
ROBERTS: I just want to make a transition here. Because Arsalan, you say if it was a white professor and a black cop we wouldnt have hard anything about it.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.
ROBERTS: But, we have just seen Shirley Sherrod fired for what looked like racism against a white farmer without anyone watching the whole video, without anyone giving her the benefit of the doubt.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right, according to Breitbart.
ROBERTS: So weve just had reverse discrimination acted on with just the same amount of rush to judgment.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: No, absolutely. And, you know, I think that the whole Shirley Sherrod lawsuit now - you know, I hope she sues the Drudge out of Breitbart for defamation for false light and all the other First Amendment tort claims, you know, that are going to be available to her. You know, a lot of people have heard about, you know, defamation, you know, consisting of slander and liable, where, you know, slander is defamation by speaking and liable is defamation by the written word. Most people dont know about the tort of false light where you can not only sue for defamation, but false light, you know, where somebody is being painted in a false light that would be embarrassing to the reasonable person. And so I think that Andrew Breitbart is going to have to pull out his checkbook and write a check to Shirley Sherrod soon.
Mr. IZRAEL: You really think behind this announcement that shes going to sue Andrew Breitbart? You think shes going to prevail, bro? Really?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, it is a tough standard. You know, in the watershed defamation Supreme Court case, The New York Times v. Sullivan, you know, public officials when it comes to defamation have to prove quote, actual malice," which, you know, I think in this case, you know, I think Andrew Breitbart is basically, you know, constituted completely of malice so, you know, that might be an easier threshold to prove. But legally speaking, it is a defamation is one of the harder torts to prove.
Mr. IZRAEL: Yo, Double-R, wait a second. For the people that, you know, maybe have been living up under a rock for the last week, why dont you fill in the blanks.
ROBERTS: Right. So Shirley Sherrod, who became household name last week from basic, you know, civil servant obscurity, she was forced to resign by the White House because Andrew Breitbart, this conservative blogger, had posted a video of her on his website. It was heavily edited, but the video that he posted seemed to suggest that she treated a white farmer differently because he was white. And then when you saw the whole video, she went on to make the point that she had learned from that experience and she went on to help that white farmer.
So once the context was revealed, both President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized and offered her a different job at the agriculture department within their civil rights division. And just yesterday President Obama said the media attention surrounding all of this was a bogus controversy. But Shirley Sherrod is certainly - she hasnt filed suit, but shes certainly suggesting that she will sue Andrew Breitbart.
This is a clip of her yesterday in San Diego, where she was a panelist at the National Association of Black Journalists NABJ.
(Soundbite of recording)
Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Former Department of Agriculture Employee): He had to know that he was targeting me. Now, whether he was also trying to target the NAACP, he had to know that he was targeting me. And at this point, you know, he hasnt apologized. I dont want it at this point and...
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. SHERROD: ...hell definitely hear from me.
Unidentified Woman: Just to follow up on that, there have been reports that you are considering a lawsuit. Have you decided whether you are going to pursue that action?
Ms. SHERROD: I will definitely do it.
Unidentified Woman: So you'll definitely...
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. SHERROD: I will definitely do it. Yes.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: You go, girl.
Mr. CONTINETTI: I'm confused why she's not suing the people who actually fired her for wrongful termination.
Mr. ARELLANO: That's true.
Mr. CONTINETTI: I think she would have better standing there than going after Andrew Breitbart, because I mean we dont know the full details, whether he had the full video. I think there her case would probably be more - would have more standing if it was revealed that Breitbart had the full video and knew that he was releasing a selected portion when he posted it on his website.
If someone just handed him this video and then he released it, I'm not sure you could put, you know, win a suit on false light cases, as the professor suggests - as the lawyer suggests.
ROBERTS: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in for Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE's weekly visit to the Barbershop.
We're speaking with journalist Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Gustavo Arellano and Matthew Continetti.
Back to you Jimi.
Mr. IZRAEL: Thank you, Rebecca.
Listen, just one last check-in, Matt. Do you think that she should've left well enough alone? You think she should just walk away and get on with the rest of her life?
Mr. CONTINETTI: No. I think she has a serious problem with the federal government, who wrongfully terminated her, because they were panicking over racial politics. But we need to understand, it was the government that fired her and probably the Obama administration had a lot to do with it. You know, speaking to people who have a long time experience in government, a cabinet secretary probably doesnt have the leeway on his own to make this type of personnel decision. Let's not forget, it's hard to fire people from the federal government without having some counsel or notification from the White House first.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, but the Obama administration said that this was Tom Vilsack's decision. I mean, let's not forget, she was...
Mr. CONTINETTI: Of course they're going to say that.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, hold on. She was Georgia State director of rural development. She was a mid-level staffer at the state level. This is not somebody working in D.C. here. And so, you know, the cabinet, you know, the secretary, you know, took the blame for it and...
Mr. CONTINETTI: That's precisely why it's difficult to hire civil service...
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well...
Mr. CONTINETTI: ...hire and fire civil service employees as opposed to a political appointee, where you would have much more leeway in the executive to say, sorry, its just - your time is up. But an actual civil service employee, much more difficult to hire and fire.
Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, we're just going to have to watch this thing. Hold on. We're just going to have to watch this thing as it unfolds. We're going to have to move on for right now, because, you know, the Obama administration is touting a victory this week by way of a federal judge who blocked portions of Arizona's controversial immigration enforcement law.
Now, the law has been the center of the country's immigration debate for months now, Rebecca.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Jimi, it's - part of the new law went into effect yesterday. But a federal judge blocked the most contentious portions of the law, portions that critics say would lead to racial profiling by police.
Here's Arizona's Governor Jane Brewer talking on CNN yesterday.
Governor JAN BREWER (Republican, Arizona): You know, we're a nation of laws. The bottom line is, is that, you know, I always try to relate it to that a country without borders is like a house without walls. It collapses. And I know that there are several people out there that want to discuss other issues, but we want are borders secured. And as the governor of the state of Arizona, I took an oath to uphold the laws and to protect the people of Arizona, and I'm going to be relentless in it.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Hmm.
Mr. IZRAEL: Wowsers.
Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah, right.
Mr. IZRAEL: Gustavo?
Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah, she's not relentless. If she was, she would've gone after Maricopa County - or Sheriff Joe Arpaio many, many times, who has violated the civil liberties of so many people in the Phoenix area. And not just Mexicans and not just immigrants, mind you - African-Americans, white folks and the like. This isn't a victory. This is just we're, you know, we're spinning our wheels here. People are waiting to see what a judge is ultimately going to decide in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That could take months.
I'm glad that it's, you know, the implementation of SB1070 hasnt been put totally into effect, but the law is still on the books. The law is still on the books. It's just - we're just waiting right now. I'm glad that the Obama administration is pursuing one of many lawsuits. Obviously the Obama administration is suing, ACLU is suing. The one thing I would hope is that all these different people - all these different parties who are going against SB1070, that they would, you know, trade notes and try to get one big suit instead of having five or six different ones wind their way through the court system.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, the funny thing is that, you know, Governor...
Mr. ARELLANO: (Unintelligible)
Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...Jan Brewer, you know, talks about being a nation of laws, but she herself doesnt know the Constitution, which says that it's the federal government's sole right to make and enforce immigration law. It is not the right of state police officers. You know, Judge Susan Bolton in the 10th District, you know, blocked four major portions of the law.
First, the requirement that local police check a person's immigration status during a stop. Second, that, you know, legal residents, you know, brown men like myself, you know, have to carry our freedom papers. Number three, a section allowing officers to detain people if they think that they're deportable. And finally, she blocked the section that makes it a crime for illegal immigrants to solicit work in public places.
ROBERTS: But she did not say Arizona didnt have the right to pass immigration law. I mean she didnt say it was solely the jurisdiction the federal government.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: One of the major provisions that actually did go into effect is the fact that state officials, state law enforcement officials do have to collaborate and do have to, you know, ally with federal immigration officers in terms of enforcing federal immigration laws. And so, you know, the four key constitutional provisions in terms of what I - and, you know, I predicted that this is going to go up to the Supreme Court a long time ago, and this is something that, you know, I think we'll see get to the high court very soon.
Mr. CONTINETTI: Yeah, absolutely. And, of course, the issue at stake is, do the states have the right to enforce federal laws? And the reason that it's become an issue is because the federal government isn't enforcing the laws to the extent that the people of Arizona and people throughout the country would like them to.
I mean one court where the Obama administration, the ACLU, the government of Mexico and all the other litigants in this case have already lost is the court of public opinion. And I think there we - that does show a deep public concern about whether we are a government, you know, a nation of laws and whether those laws on the books, that are on the books, on the federal books, actually have meaning.
ROBERTS: I want to get to a very important thing that happened this week, which is the president appeared...
Mr. IZRAEL: This just in.
ROBERTS: ...on ABC's "The View." He visited with the ladies. In case you all missed it, here's a clip.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The View")
President BARACK OBAMA: I do have a...
Ms. WHOOPI GOLDBERG (Actor): You have a pod?
President OBAMA: I've got a pod though. And Ive got a great iPod.
Ms. GOLDBERG: Now can I ask you, whats the first couple of songs on your iPod?
President OBAMA: You name a song, Ive got it. Whether its...
Ms. GOLDBERG: "Didnt I Blow Your Mind This Time."
President OBAMA: Ive got Jay-Z on there.
(Soundbite of applause)
President OBAMA: Ive got Frank Sinatra on there.
Ms. SHERRI SHEPHERD (Actor): Justin Bieber.
President OBAMA: Ive got Maria Callas on there. I do not have Justin Bieber on there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oy.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Jimi, what do you think about the president going on with Barbara Walters and Whoopi and the crew?
Mr. IZRAEL: I think it's conduct unbecoming. You know, I think we get it. Youre a regular guy. We got it. So we dont need to know, you(ph) people out there, you know, can't find a job. You know, the jobs they have, they can't afford to go to a dentist. You know, youre telling us what's on the presidential iPod. I think it's a net loss is what I think. Sorry.
ROBERTS: Do you think it helps the public perception that he is aloof and nerdy and an egghead?
Mr. IZRAEL: No. I think he's trying to take some heat off and I guess I respect that. But, nah, I think, like again, you know, so what, he's going to be on "106 & Park" on BET next? Nah, In good. I'm good. I've seen enough of him.
Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah, the Sports Center.
Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I know he's a regular guy. I got it. So be a regular guy and get the economy together, bro. Seriously.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBERTS: That's Jimi Izrael, freelance journalist, author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. We also were joined by Gustavo Arellano. He's a syndicated columnist who writes the column "Ask A Mexican" for the OC Weekly. He joined us member station KUCI in Orange County, California. Matthew Continetti, associate editor for The Weekly Standard and author of "The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star." And Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a legal fellow for the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. They were both with us here in our Washington studios.
Thank you all so much.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.
Mr. ARELLANO: Gracias.
Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you.
Mr. IZRAEL: Yup-yup.
(Soundbite of music)
ROBERTS: And that's our program for today. Youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is back to talk more on Monday.
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