Elon Musk may be done with 2018, but 2018 ain’t done with Musk.
On Wednesday, lawyers for the Tesla CEO filed a motion with a California court to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Vernon Unsworth in September. Unsworth is an explorer and British ex-pat living in Thailand who helped a rescue team in the effort to find twelve boys and their coach in a flooded cave. Over the summer, Musk made headlines as he scrambled to build a mini-sub that could be used to find the boys. Rescuers deemed Musk’s plan impractical, and after everyone was safe and sound, Unsworth called the submarine lark a “PR stunt.” This appeared to bother Musk, and he responded on Twitter by insinuating that Unsworth is a pedophile and explicitly calling him “pedo guy.” Unsworth responded to Musk’s tweets with a lawsuit seeking $75,000 in compensatory damages.
In the new court filings, Musk’s lawyers argue that Musk had tweeted “in anger,” later apologized, and “over-the-top insults are not statements of fact.” When you’re being sued for slander and libel, it might not be the wisest strategy to claim you’re innocent because the accusations you’ve made are false, but these attorneys are innovators living in the 21st century. The filing goes on to argue that “courts consider ‘the totality of the circumstances in which it was made.’” And in this case, they said, a reasonable reader would not presume Musk had any special information that would lend his “imaginative attacks” credibility.
Unsworth’s lawyers maintain in their suit that Musk made his comments with actual malice. Musk’s lawyers claim that his statements are protected by the First Amendment, no matter what, and “even if offensive, such speculative insults are by their nature opinion.”
The Musk defense weakens when you consider how hard he doubled-down in his now-deleted tweets. At one point a Twitter user chided Musk for making baseless accusations against someone who’d rescued children. Musk replied, “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.” While that’s not a phrase that anyone uses in regular life and it’s genuinely weird; a reasonable reader could arguably presume that Musk might truly believe it and that, as a powerful billionaire, he might have some insider knowledge.
He went further with comments made by email to Buzzfeed News in September. He told Buzzfeed, “I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole,” and said he hoped that Unsworth will sue him. Again, welcoming a lawsuit could lead a reader to believe that Musk had special knowledge of the situation. He later claimed those comments were off the record, but Buzzfeed’s reporter said they never agreed to those terms.
Musk’s lawyers cite the Buzzfeed article in their motion to dismiss the suit. They use the reporter’s description of “Musk’s bombast as ‘evidenceless criticism’” to back up their argument that people didn’t take the accusations seriously.
We don’t know how the court will view Team Musk’s arguments, but we must say, their description of Twitter, as “a social networking website infamous for invective and hyperbole,” is incontrovertibly true.