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How Will Verdict Affect George Zimmerman’s Libel Suit Against NBC?

George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict adds a new wrinkle to a separate legal case in the Florida courts: His defamation suit against NBC.

In December, Zimmerman sued NBC, reporter Ron Allen and two other news personnel on claims that the network’s edits of his 911 call to police were manipulated to make it sound like he was a racist. The Florida judge in Zimmerman’s case, Debra Nelson, put the defamation case on hold pending the result of the criminal trial.

Jody Armour, professor at USC’s Gould School of Law, said that although it is “possible” that Zimmerman’s claim against the network will be strengthened, it “may not have a big impact because he has to prove actual malice if he is trying to prove defamation.”

He believes that Zimmerman “is almost certainly going to fall into the classification” of a public figure, raising the bar for plaintiffs, in that they have to prove knowledge that they knew that the information was false or had reckless disregard for the truth.

In a defamation trial, however, NBC can say that the not guilty verdict “has limited probative value as far as establishing a claim that they acted with actual malice toward him, that they acted with actual indifference to the truth,” Armour said. The point is that a defamation trial would have to do with the circumstances at the time the story aired.

It will be hard to find a jury that is not aware of the not guilty verdict, which would make a jury trial, if it gets to that point, all the more unpredictable.

Gary Bostwick of Bostwick & Jassy, which specializes in media First Amendment cases, said that “my first impression would be that [the not guilty verdict] would make a difference in the theatrical sense in front of a jury, but in a legal sense I am not sure it has any relevance in a defamation case.”

Zimmerman’s suit stated that “NBC created this false and defamatory misimpression using the oldest form of yellow journalism: manipulating Zimmerman’s own words, splicing together disparate parts of the recording to create the illusion of statements that Zimmerman never actually made.”

NBC News apologized to viewers for the incident, but after the suit was filed it vowed to “vigorously defend our position in court.” Zimmerman’s legal team contend that the network never apologized to him.

“There was no intent to portray Mr. Zimmerman unfairly,” the network said. In a legal response, the network noted how other news outlets were reporting on the issue of race and that they, too, were forced to edit the 911 call.

Two defendants in the defamation suit, reporter Lilia Rodriguez Luciano and producer Jeff Burnside, were terminated in spring, 2012, after stories surfaced about the editing of the calls.

In media defamation cases, plaintiffs have to show that the facts about them were false, that the news story was about them and caused harm and, in the case of public figures, that there was malice, or that the news outlet knew it was false and went ahead and published it anyway. Zimmerman was not a public figure before the shooting of Trayvon Martin last year, and an issue in his litigation may very well be the extent to which he falls into the category of a “limited purpose” public figure. Courts have weighed the extent to which a person voluntarily becomes part of public debate.

Zimmerman’s suit claims that the airing of the 911 call caused Zimmerman emotional distress, and exposed him to “public contempt, ridicule, hatred and threats to his life,” and “conveyed the impression that Zimmerman is a hostile ‘racist’ who shot Trayvon Martin because the young man was African American.”

“NBC saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to increase ratings, and so set about to create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain,” the suit stated. “The goal was simple: keep their viewers alarmed, and thus always watching, by menacing them with a reprehensible series of imaginary and exaggerated racist claims.”

His suit outlines how the 911 call was edited. On one of the NBC News broadcasts, on “Today” on March 27, Zimmerman is heard on the call telling the dispatcher, of Martin, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.”

But Zimmerman did not say the two sentences in sequence. His comment, “He looks black,” was made after the dispatcher asked him if Martin was “white, black or Hispanic?”

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