WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court says former Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod can continue her defamation case against a conservative blogger.
Larry O’Connor, a colleague of the late blogger Andrew Breitbart, asked a federal court of appeals to throw out the case, saying it violates his freedom of speech rights. The appeals court on Tuesday upheld a federal district court’s rejection of that motion to dismiss.
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., Washington Post Co., and Dow Jones & Co., have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the suit.
Sherrod was ousted from her job as a rural development official in 2010 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.
Breitbart died unexpectedly last year. Sherrod’s lawyers said the unnamed defendant is the person they believe passed the video on to Breitbart, though the person’s identity remains unknown.
The video on Breitbart’s website turned out to be edited, and 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 Obama himself — and an offer to return to the Agriculture Department, which she declined.
Sherrod’s 2011 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.
O’Connor’s lawyers had argued to have the case dismissed under a District of Columbia statute that aims to prevent the silencing of critics through lawsuits. The statute is called anti-SLAPP, or ‘‘strategic lawsuit against public participation.’’
A federal district court judge rejected their motion to dismiss, citing timing and jurisdictional issues, prompting the appeal. The appeals court affirmed that O’Connor’s lawyers missed the deadline for filing the dismissal request.
In March arguments, the lawyers told the court of appeals that O’Connor and Breitbart, before he died, stood by the content, saying the blog post was opinion.
‘‘What happened here is what happens in journalism every day,’’ said Bruce Brown, a lawyer for O’Connor.
Sherrod’s lawyers disagreed and said dismissal under the District of Columbia statute would violate their right to a trial.
The case has been closely watched as a test of the District of Columbia’s anti-SLAPP statute.
Senate confirms Pritzker as commerce secretary, 97 to 1
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed billionaire business executive Penny Pritzker to be commerce secretary, filling a vacancy that has stood since John Bryson resigned last summer.
The 97 to 1 vote installs Pritzker, a longtime friend of President Obama, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his presidential campaigns, at the Commerce Department in time to assist in trade talks with the European Union and Pacific Rim nations.
‘‘She knows what it takes to build companies from the ground up, and she shares my belief in doing everything we can to help businesses and workers succeed and make America a magnet for good jobs,’’ Obama said in a statement.
Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, one of the Senate’s most liberal members, was the only vote in opposition.
Pritzker becomes the fourth woman serving as secretary in Obama’s current Cabinet. She is the wealthiest in the Cabinet by far, with Forbes estimating her net worth at $1.85 billion and ranking her as the 277th richest American. The commerce post has been vacant since Bryson resigned after saying he suffered a seizure that led to a series of traffic collisions.
Pritzker has led several companies and currently serves as chairwoman of investment firms Pritzker Realty Group and Artemis Real Estate Partners. She’s also on the board of the Hyatt Hotels Corp., the chain cofounded by her father. She has donated generously to education and the arts.
Pritzker won easy confirmation despite questions regarding her family’s offshore trusts in the Bahamas. Obama was a critic of such tax shelters in the campaign.
‘‘She is a force of nature,’’ said Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, who said the Commerce post ‘‘takes a tough person and we haven’t had a tough person for a while.’’
Frank portrait unveiled
The portrait of former US representative Barney Frank was unveiled Tuesday on Capitol Hill. The Newton Democrat left Congress in January after 32 years, including a stint as Financial Services chairman. Frank, the longest-serving openly gay member of Congress, is planning on writing a book, among other things.