George Zimmerman Still Standing His Ground

Now that he’s won an acquittal on second degree murder charges, George Zimmerman may be headed back to court. But this time it will be on the civil side, and he will be on offense, rather than defense.

You may recall that back in March 2012, NBC broadcast on the Today show an edited version of Zimmerman’s comments to a police dispatcher. The edited version went like this:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

But the actual recording was this:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

The edited version makes Zimmerman look like a committed racial profiler. The complete version, not so much.

Zimmerman filed a lawsuit against NBC back in December, but the civil case has been on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case. And that illustrates some important aspects of libel law. A libel plaintiff has to establish several elements. The statement has to be false. But it also must be defamatory in nature. When my mom told everyone she ever met I was the smartest student in my law school class it was patently false, but I couldn’t sue her for defamation.

And that brings us to element 3 – the statement has to harm the plaintiff’s reputation. In Zimmerman’s case, the acquittal was key to his ability to proceed with the libel suit. Had he been convicted for murder, he would have had a tough time arguing that the Today show broadcast did any additional harm to his reputation.

Now Zimmerman’s case lives on. And NBC once again manages to find itself in a high profile libel suit. Olympic bombing suspect Richard Jewell got $500,000 from the network based on its reporting on his case in 1996. We’ll see if history repeats itself here.