George Zimmerman Loses Defamation Lawsuit Against NBC
A Florida judge rules the Travyon Martin killer can't demonstrate the TV network acted with actual malice in handling his 911 call.
A Florida judge has ruled that George Zimmerman can't prevail in a defamation lawsuit against NBCUniversal and some of its television reporters and, as a result, has granted the media company's motion to dismiss.
Zimmerman sued in December 2012 claiming that NBC distorted facts and edited his 911 call to make it appear as though his killing of Travyon Martin was racially motivated. "Their goal was simple," stated Zimmerman's lawsuit. The network attempted to "keep their viewers alarmed, and thus always watching, by menacing them with a reprehensible series of imaginary and exaggerated racist claims."
As part of the lawsuit, Zimmerman objected that NBC hadn't made it clear that he was answering a 911 dispatcher's question when saying, "He looks like he's up to no good. ... He looks black."
Zimmerman also was upset at the allegation that he used a racial epithet to describe Martin.
On Monday, Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson issued a final judgment that determined that Zimmerman was a limited-purpose public figure for having voluntarily injected "his views into the public controversy surrounding race relations and public safety in Sanford and pursued a course of conduct that ultimately led to the death of Martin and the specific controversy surrounding it."
As a result, in order to prevail in his lawsuit, Zimmerman needed to demonstrate that NBC acted with "actual malice," a legal standard that means knowledge or reckless disregard of falsity.
The judge won't let the plaintiff to go further.
In Judge Nelson's opinion (read here), she writes that Zimmerman spoke the words attributed to him, and that the "excerpt from the non-emergency call quoted in NBC's broadcasts accurately captured the 'gist' and 'sting' of what Zimmerman actually said and were not false in any material sense."
The judge adds that an edited quotation can't be held as being published with actual malice unless the alteration has a different effect on the mind of the reader than what was actually said. The judge concludes that "because Zimmerman is unable to demonstrate that the editing choices at issue resulted in a materially false change in the meaning of what he actually said, he cannot pursue his defamation claims arising from those choices as a matter of law."
As for the disputed use of a "racial epithet," the judge notes that the "tape recording itself is, at best, ambiguous," and thus, NBC's interpretation of that portion of the recording can't support a finding of actual malice either.
A spokesperson for the network's news division says, "NBC News is gratified by the court's dismissal of this lawsuit, which we have always believed to be without merit."