Zimmerman Falls Short in Defamation Claim

Race Debate Continues

The 2013 Zimmerman trial (State of Florida v. George Zimmerman) was without a doubt one of the most racially charged trials of this decade. Zimmerman’s acquittal led to thousands of protests across the United States, many of which broke out into dangerous riots. Many black leaders even demanded that authorities pursue a civil rights case against Zimmerman, including the NAACP, one of the largest black advocacy organizations in the nation.

According to a Pew study, 62 percent of white Americans thought the trial focused too much on race, while 72 percent of black Americans thought race played a major role in the outcome and needed to be discussed. Now, about one year later after the Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty on all counts, the race debate continues. This time, Zimmerman brought a suit for defamation against NBC, but the Florida judge ruled that he had no case because he failed to prove that the television network acted maliciously, a factor required to win a defamation suit involving a public figure.

Zimmerman argued that the network’s broadcasters made him appear racist with their edited version of his 911 Call that he made on the night of Trayvon Martin’s shooting. In 2012, NBC broadcasted excerpts of the call, which read: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good…He looks black.”

The full transcript of the call reflects that Zimmerman never volunteered that Martin was black, but was instead answering a question from the police dispatcher about the teen’s race. The unedited transcript read: “The guy, is he black, white, or Hispanic?” in which Zimmerman responded: “He looks black.”

Zimmerman stated that the edited version made his call seem racially motivated, and since the airing of the transcript, he claimed that he has been publicly ridiculed and harassed. NBC acknowledged the error and issued an apology to Zimmerman.

In order for Zimmerman to have prevailed on his defamation claim he needed to show actual malice because he is considered a “public figure,” (such as a celebrity or politician) a standard set in the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, (1964). The judge presiding over the case stated that Zimmerman became a public figure after he shot Martin, and at the time of the aired transcript he was engaged in an extremely important case of public concern.

Under case law, public figures are held to a higher standard because they have assumed public roles and therefore have a greater opportunity to publicly defend themselves to defamation and libel claims. If Zimmerman was able to show that he was a private individual, he would have only had to prove negligence, a lower standard. Private individuals generally lack the resources to defended defamation claims and are therefore afforded greater protection by not having to prove actual malice.

Because Zimmerman was not able to prove that NBC acted in actual malice, his case was thrown out. Mere manipulation of the transcript was not enough to show that the network acted in way to intentionally hurt Zimmerman.


– Skylar Young






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