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Florida judge tosses George Zimmerman libel suit against NBC

By Letitia Stein

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - A Florida judge on Monday ruled against a libel lawsuit brought by acquitted killer George Zimmerman against NBC Universal, saying the network did not maliciously seek to portray him as a racist when it edited a phone call he made to police before shooting an unarmed black teenager.

Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson said Zimmerman has no right to money from NBC, according to court documents.

"Because Zimmerman is unable to demonstrate that the editing choices at issue resulted in a materially false change in the meaning of what he actually said, he cannot pursue his defamation claims," Nelson, who also presided over Zimmerman's murder trial last year, wrote in her summary judgment.

Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, 17, in February 2012, when he was a neighborhood watch volunteer. His acquittal last year prompted civil rights rallies and drew international attention to Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law.

In the lawsuit, which was filed before his acquittal, Zimmerman said NBC intentionally edited and repeatedly aired a phone call he made to police before he fatally shot Martin "to create the myth" that he was a racist.

The edited audio aired in March 2012 on the network's "Today" morning show, a nightly newscast and on a Miami affiliate station. Zimmerman contended it made it appear that he told police that Martin was black without being asked.

The full tape revealed that Zimmerman did so in response to a dispatcher's question.

But Nelson said Zimmerman was a public figure at the time and therefore would have to prove that the broadcasters acted with malice in an effort to defame him.

The network apologized to its viewers in a statement and fired at least two NBC News employees.

Zimmerman's attorney could not immediately be reached for comment on Nelson's ruling. The network released a statement saying: "NBC News is gratified by the court's dismissal of this lawsuit, which we have always believed to be without merit."

Zimmerman had been seeking an undisclosed amount in damages. The judge's ruling on Monday ends his lawsuit, unless it is overturned on appeal, a court spokeswoman said.

NBC News is part of NBC Universal Media, a unit of Comcast Corp.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Bill Trott)

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