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Media & Communications Law

Judge throws out George Zimmerman’s libel lawsuit against NBC

Posted Jun 30, 2014 3:33 PM CDT
By Victor Li

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Corrected: A state court judge has dismissed George Zimmerman’s libel suit against NBC.

The Orlando Sentinel reported Monday that Seminole Circuit Judge Debra Nelson of the 18th Judicial Circuit Court in Florida has tossed out Zimmerman’s lawsuit. Zimmerman had originally filed the lawsuit two years ago, accusing NBC of painting him as a racist after he shot and killed 17 year-old African-American Trayvon Martin. NBC had edited audio from a 911 call making it sound like Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin. Soon after the edited audio aired, NBC issued a public apology and fired the employees involved.

Judge Nelson granted NBC’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing with NBC that Zimmerman was a public figure, and as such, had to prove that NBC knew it was reporting false information. “There exists absolutely no clear and convincing evidence that defendants knew that the information published was false at the time it was published, or recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of those statements,” she wrote. Indeed, Nelson held that Zimmerman had been a public figure even before the Martin shooting, pointing out his high-profile protest in 2010 accusing Sanford County Police of covering up a beating delivered by a white police officer’s son against a homeless African-American.

This was an example of Zimmerman “voluntarily injecting his views into the public controversy surrounding race relations and public safety in Sanford,” Nelson wrote.

In her opinion, Nelson also tossed aside Zimmerman’s claim that NBC had deliberately inflicted emotional distress upon him and his family. Instead, Nelson pointed out that Zimmerman and his family had gone into hiding well before the NBC broadcasts in question. Additionally, Nelson noted that NBC had balanced its reporting by airing interviews with several of Zimmerman’s friends saying he was not a racist.

“NBC News is gratified by the court’s dismissal of this lawsuit, which we have always believed to be without merit,” NBC said in a prepared statement.

Zimmerman’s lawyer, James Beasley Jr. of Philadelphia, did not respond to the Sentinel’s request for comment.

Updated on July 1 to reflect that Judge Debra Nelson is a state court judge, not a federal judge.

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