A motion filed by the Tesla CEO in federal court on Monday argue that Vernon Unsworth, the man Musk insulted, “cannot establish a defamation case just because Mr. Musk insulted him on Twitter and sent a private email to a reporter.”
Musk’s lawyers argued that the epithet “pedo guy” is commonly used in Musk’s home country of South Africa to mean “creepy old man.” The term is “aimed at mocking a person’s appearance and demeanor, not an accusation of pedophilia,” and the insult could be interpreted as an opinion, Musk’s attorneys argue. (Under the First Amendment, opinions are often protected speech and typically not considered defamatory.)
A jury trial for the case is scheduled to begin the first week of December. The latest motion asks the judge to rule in Musk’s favor before the trial. A response from Unsworth’s team is expected next month.
Unsworth, a British caver based in Thailand, was part of a team of rescue workers that saved 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand last summer.
Musk became involved in the rescue effort as the three-week-long story gained international news attention. At one point, a Twitter user asked if Musk could help with the rescue efforts, according to court documents, and Musk “immediately mobilized a team of 50 of his top engineers” and specialists to work on the project as “an act of charity.”
Musk personally worked on efforts to develop a “kid-size submarine” under guidance from Richard Stanton, the head of a team of British divers involved in the rescue efforts in Thailand, according to filings.
Ultimately, all 13 people were rescued from the flooded cave without the use of Musk’s submarine.
The controversy began when Unsworth described Musk’s miniature submarine as a PR stunt. A few days after the boys were rescued, he told CNN in an interview that Musk’s escape pod “had absolutely no chance of working” and said Musk can “can stick his submarine where it hurts.”
Musk responded in a series of tweets that referred to Unsworth as a “pedo guy.” The posts were later deleted, and Musk issued an apology.
The topic resurfaced, however, in September 2018 after Buzzfeed published a report that included emails from Musk in which he claims Unsworth married a 12-year-old “child bride.” Court filings say Musk learned of the marriage from a private investigator he hired to research Unsworth. Buzzfeed reported that it was not able to corroborate the allegations.
Unsworth filed a defamation lawsuit against Musk about two weeks after the Buzzfeed story published.
Unsworth’s attorney, L. Lin Wood, said the accusation that Unsworth married an underage girl is false. Wood added that the latest court filings amount to a “smear tactic” that contains numerous “untruths.” He added that the private investigation into Unsworth’s life “was a ruse set up by Mr. Musk to shift public attention away from the heinous claims” he made.
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