SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — Part of a lawsuit against NBC Universal that claims that the television network defamed George Zimmerman in a 2012 broadcast was thrown out by a Florida judge Thursday, putting the entire litigation in jeopardy.
Zimmerman’s attorneys waited too long under Florida statute to ask NBC to retract what it claimed were libelous statements in a March 19, 2012, broadcast that they said made their client sound like a racist, Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson ruled. Zimmerman was not at the hearing.
The statute requires five days written notice identifying potentially libelous statements. A letter claiming the network edited Zimmerman’s 911 call to police to make it sound like he was a racist was sent to network executives on Dec. 4, 2012.
Three other NBC broadcasts from March 20, 22 and 27, that included the reference are still in question, but the judge said she had to do more homework on the issues before making a final decision.
The defamation case had been postponed pending the conclusion of Zimmerman’s murder trial in July 2012. The 30-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer was acquitted of second-degree murder in 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s February 2012 death in Sanford. The case took on a life of its own, with questions raised about race and Florida’s “stand your ground” defense law.
Zimmerman’s attorney, James Beasley Jr., identified not just negligent reporting by NBC, but apologies the network made acknowledging problems in the four broadcasts. The editing made it sound like Zimmerman voluntarily told an operator that Martin was black. He was actually responding to a dispatcher’s question about the Miami teen’s race. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.
NBC apologized on April 3, 2012, for “an error in the production process” and fired a reporter and a producer afterward.
Beasley accused NBC of “manipulating Zimmerman’s own words.” The edited recordings included multiple deletions and removal of some of the dialogue between Zimmerman and the dispatcher.
Attorneys for NBC also argued that Zimmerman was both a “limited purpose” public figure and an “involuntary” public figure when the broadcasts occurred. Defamation law gives news organizations wide protections when covering public figures, who must prove that the news organization acted with malice and knowledge that the allegations were false.