Elon Musk has asked a California judge to throw out a defamation claim filed against him by a British diver whom the tech billionaire called a paedophile on Twitter.
Musk argues that it was nothing more than a “schoolyard spat on social media” which no reasonable reader took seriously.
Musk’s motion to dismiss the claim, filed in court on Wednesday, argues that “the public knew from the outset that his insults were not intended to be statements of fact”.
Musk called diver Vernon Unsworth a “paedo” in a tweet to 22.5m followers after Unsworth criticised him on CNN in July, saying his efforts to help rescue young football players trapped in a cave in Thailand amounted to “a PR stunt”.
Musk and engineers from his rocket company, SpaceX, built a small submarine and shipped it to Thailand to help with the rescue.
The device was not used and Unsworth said on CNN that it would not have worked to free the boys who were trapped in the flooded cave.
He added: “(Musk) can stick his submarine somewhere where it hurts.”
Musk later deleted his tweets about Unsworth and apologised, tweeting that his words were “spoken in anger” and that the sub was built out of kindness according to specifications from the dive team leader.
But on August 30, Musk e-mailed a Buzzfeed News reporter, suggesting that he should investigate Unsworth and “stop defending child rapists”, according to the lawsuit.
Musk wrote: “He’s an old, single white guy from England who’s been travelling or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years.”
He added that Unsworth moved to Thailand “for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time”, according to the lawsuit.
The documents went on: “Mr Unsworth is not a paedophile. Mr Unsworth has never engaged in an act of paedophilia. Mr Unsworth is not a child rapist.”
Unsworth had also never been married to a minor, they said.
Unsworth lived in Thailand with his “significant other”, a 40-year-old woman, and started going to Thailand in 2011 to explore and map caves, the lawsuit said.
Musk’s motion to dismiss argues that the e-mail to Buzzfeed was supposed to be off the record, but the news outlet reported at the time that its reporters had made no such agreement.
The entrepreneur’s lawyers wrote: “While many readers criticised Mr Musk for lodging what they understood to be groundless accusations, not a single reader seemed to construe Mr Musk’s statements literally.”
The attorneys argue that reasonable readers would not take any of Musk’s statements as objective facts but rather “non-actionable opinion”.
Their filing continues: “Here, the reasonable reader would not have believed that Mr Musk – without having ever met Mr Unsworth, in the midst of a schoolyard spat on social media, and from 8,000 miles afar – was conveying that he was in possession of private knowledge that Mr Unsworth was sexually attracted to children or engaged in sex acts with children.”
Musk’s statements were simply “imaginative attacks”, and even if they were offensive, such insults were protected by the First Amendment, the filing said, adding that “(readers) contemporaneously recognised Mr Musk’s comments for what they were: over-the-top insults not driven by first-hand knowledge.”
Picture: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson