Why Elon Musk Could Lose Defamation Suit Over Calling Thai Cave Rescuer A Pedophile
After Elon Musk apologized for his tweet calling Vernon Unsworth, a Brit who took part in the Thai-cave rescue this past summer, a “pedo guy,” the Tesla CEO emailed Buzzfeed, called him a “child rapist” and wrote, “I f*cking hope he sues me.”
This week, Unsworth filed a defamation lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, alleging Musk caused him “worldwide damage” and that his tweets, which reached Musk’s 22.5 million followers before being deleted, were part of a “campaign to impugn” him. Unsworth is requesting damages in excess of $75,000.
Musk may have a bigger fight on his hands than he had anticipated, though, because Unsworth’s claim is strong even under California defamation law’s strict actual malice standard — and also because Unsworth’s attorney L. Lin Wood has already promised to file a similar lawsuit in London.
Leading Up to the Lawsuit
In June, the dramatic rescue of a boys’ soccer team and their coach made international news after they were trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in northern Thailand. Unsworth is an experienced caver who knows the underground passageways well and volunteered to aid in the operation, which ended in the successful retrieval of the team and coach in July.
During the course of the rescue, Musk publicly promised to build and supply a mini-submarine that would be able to navigate the narrow tunnels of the caves and rescue the children and their coach. This device, however, was never used.
Unsworth appeared on CNN and criticized Musk’s mini-submarine offer, calling it a “PR stunt” and suggested Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.” These comments prompted Musk’s tweet that referred to Unsworth as “pedo guy,” slang for a pedophile. Musk doubled down in a subsequent tweet, “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”
Musk later deleted those tweets and apologized, claiming his words were “spoken in anger after Mr. Unsworth said several untruths & suggested I engage in a sexual act with the mini-sub,” but he never retracted allegations of pedophilia.
In late August, the controversy arose again when Musk essentially dared Unsworth to bring a lawsuit, tweeting, “You don’t think it’s strange he hasn’t sued me?” And then came the Buzzfeed emails, which included the claim that Unsworth had moved to Thailand to marry a 12-year-old bride.
California Defamation Law
Defamation is the publication of a false statement that damages someone’s reputation or livelihood. California recognizes “defamation per se,” in which a statement is defamatory on its face; one example of this type of defamation is a statement that someone is guilty of a crime.
Public figures in California must show that the speaker of the alleged defamatory statement acted with actual malice, “that state of mind arising from hatred or ill will toward the plaintiff,” with the knowledge that the statements are false or actions that show a reckless disregard for their falsity. This standard is high and rightfully so because it works to protect the freedom of speech.