Last July, George Zimmerman sat down with Sean Hannity of Fox News for a multi-topic and much-viewed interview. The discussion went into minute detail on Zimmerman’s deadly encounter with Trayvon Martin, from the moment he spotted Martin to the initial violence to his reflections on the whole thing: “I feel it was all God’s plan,” Zimmerman told Hannity.
That whole setup — Zimmerman chatting with Hannity in front of a huge cable-news audience- — could work to his detriment in the suit that the neighborhood watchman filed last week against NBC Universal. The legal action alleges that NBC News defamed Zimmerman with by mis-editing the 911 call that he made prior to the Martin shooting. The misleadingly rendered audiotape framed Zimmerman as a hardened racial profiler.
As it gears up to defend itself, NBC Universal is all but certain to mount a familiar argument. Zimmerman, it will likely contend, is a “public figure” for the purposes of the lawsuit. Under defamation law, those whom the court terms “public figures” bear a heightened burden of proof when bringing a libel case against a news outlet. They must prove that the outlet acted knowingly to spread falsehoods or with reckless disregard of the truth — a standard known to lawyers as “actual malice.” Regular folks — non-public figures, that is — have much less burden to prevail in a libel action; they need prove only that the news outlet acted with negligence or carelessness. The spirit behind the bifurcated standard in libel cases is to “free criticism of public officials from the restraints imposed by the common law of defamation.”
Atlanta attorney Lin Wood calls public-figure arguments “the linchpin for successful defense of defamation cases.”