George Zimmerman Sues Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg Over Trayvon Martin Tweets

CBS News
February 19, 2020 - 2:41 pm
George Zimmerman

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George Zimmerman is suing Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren for defamation over tweets they posted about the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman's lawsuit accuses them of "maliciously publishing false and misleading" tweets about the case in order to "garner votes in the black community."

Zimmerman filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Florida, seeking $265 million "for loss of good will and reputation" and financial damages.

In 2012, Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Martin when he encountered the teen walking to his father's home nearby. Zimmerman was later acquitted after his lawyers argued he was acting in self-defense, provoking widespread protests. 

Both Democratic candidates published the tweets on February 5, which would have been Trayvon Martin's 25th birthday.

"My heart goes out to [Martin's mother> @SybrinaFulton and Trayvon's family and friends. He should still be with us today. We need to end gun violence and racism. And we need to build a world where all of our children-especially young Black boys-can grow up safe and free," Elizabeth Warren tweeted to her 3.7 million followers.

"Trayvon Martin would have been 25 today. How many 25th birthdays have been stolen from us by white supremacy, gun violence, prejudice, and fear?" Pete Buttigieg said in his tweet.

In his lawsuit, Zimmerman claims the tweets defame him by suggesting to millions of followers that his actions were a result of "white supremacy, gun violence, prejudice, and fear" of Martin's skin color. 

"Defendant Warren's use of the word 'racism' as having caused the death of Trayvon Martin is a smear that disparages and defames Zimmerman, a man who is Hispanic, a minority advocate, and an Obama supporter," the lawsuit reads. "...Defendant Warren knows that as established in the 2013 trial and in the media, that Zimmerman fired a single shot only because he believed he might go unconscious and die."

The lawsuit claims Buttigieg's and Warren's "preconceived plan to discredit and destroy Zimmerman" was part of their political strategy to gain black votes. Polls have shown the two candidates lagging in support among African American voters. 

But CBSN legal contributor Keir Dougall, a former federal prosecutor and trial lawyer, says Zimmerman would face an "uphill climb" trying to prove his case in court.

Because Zimmerman is a public figure, to win his claim he "would have to prove that the statements were knowingly false or reckless to the truth," Dougall explained. That's a high bar. And at the same time, the First Amendment offers a great deal of protection to Warren and Buttigieg to exercise their right to free speech.

"One of the core types of speech the First Amendment protects is political speech, and you've got two presidential candidates tweeting in their campaigns — that's obviously political speech," Dougall said. "The First Amendment would be at its strongest in protecting this particular type of speech."

In 2014, a Florida judge threw out a libel suit Zimmerman filed against a news organization on the grounds that he was a public figure and could not prove the outlet acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

CBS News has reached out to the Buttigieg and Warren campaigns for comment and will update this story if they provide responses.