The lawyer in George Zimmerman’s defamation suit is vowing to appeal the ruling of a Florida judge who yesterday tossed the litigation from her courtroom. Judge Debra S. Nelson wrote that Zimmerman “shall take nothing by this suit” even though NBC News in multiple broadcasts had shortened a police call in a way that inaccurately depicted Zimmerman as volunteering racial information about Trayvon Martin on the night of their fatal encounter in February 2012.
“We obviously disagree with the judge,” says James Beasley, Zimmerman’s Philadelphia-based attorney. “We understand she has her position and we respect it, but we obviously disagree.” An appeal is coming. Nelson is the same judge who presided over Zimmerman’s 2013 criminal trial, in which he was acquitted of second-degree murder.
The pivotal section of Nelson’s decision declares that for the purposes of libel law, Zimmerman is a public figure. In so ruling, Nelson appears to have agreed with NBC’s motion to dismiss, which argued that Zimmerman’s public profile predated the encounter with Martin. He had played a leadership role in opposing the Sanford Police Department’s “perceived lethargy in investigating the relative of a law enforcement official who was allegedly involved in the beating of a black man,” noted NBC. He also lobbied for the creation of a neighborhood watch group in his neighborhood. As Nelson wrote in her ruling, “He voluntarily injected his views into the public controversy surrounding race relations and public safety in Sanford and pursued a course of action that ultimately led to the death of Trayvon Martin and the specific controversy around it.”
The public-figure finding creates an almost insurmountable hurdle for Zimmerman. To prevail in a libel action, a public figure must prove that a news organization proceeded with something called “actual malice” — that is, that the reporters disseminated the information with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard thereof. In her opinion, Nelson held that there’s no evidence that NBC News “knew that the information published was false at the time it was published, or recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of those statements at the time they were published.”
Beasley would like a chance to contest Nelson’s notion of Zimmerman’s public figureness. “The nature and extent of his thrusting himself into this as opposed to NBC thrusting him into this is a fundamental question,” says Beasley.
Though courts and lawyers can argue ad nauseam about who’s a public figure, there’s one component of the Nelson ruling that’ll be harder to counter, and it relates to the progression of the Zimmerman-Martin story. In Nelson’s words: “The undisputed evidence shows negative publicity was directed at Zimmerman by the Martin family’s lawyer, by civil rights activists, and by a litany of news media entities well before the non-emergency call was released to the public and before NBC broadcast any of the news reports at issue.”
Or, this was a media circus from the start.
Beasley didn’t sound too worried. He noted that NBC News’s journalistic errors vis-a-vis Zimmerman were so grave as to warrant firing two staffers. “This coverage got universal criticism,” said Beasley. “Every one of these libel cases are all 15 rounders.”