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Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc, speaks during an unveiling event for his Boring Company’s test tunnel in Hawthorne, California, on December 18. Photo: Bloomberg

Elon Musk claims US constitutional right to call Thai-cave hero Vernon Unsworth a ‘pedo’ and ‘child rapist’, even though he’s not

  • Elon Musk’s lawyers say his comments about Vernon Unsworth were meant to be viewed as opinion, not fact
  • Unsworth, who took part in the rescue of schoolboys from a Thai cave in July, is suing the tech entrepreneur for defamation

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has moved to have a defamation lawsuit against him dismissed, arguing that his insults aimed at a Thai-cave rescue volunteer whom he called a “pedo” and a “child rapist” were merely opinions and are protected by the US First Amendment.

“This motion boils down to a single question,” his lawyers wrote in a motion to dismiss filed Wednesday. “Would a reasonable reader believe that Musk’s statements were supported by objective facts or were instead ‘non actionable opinion’?”

In this September 6 file photo, British cave expert Vernon Unsworth talks with guests at an event in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: AP

In September, Briton Vernon Unsworth, an experienced cave explorer who was part of an international effort to rescue a young boys’ soccer team trapped in a sunken cave in northern Thailand, sued Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, for defamation.

Unsworth seeks compensation for the “worldwide damage” he suffered after Musk attacked him on Twitter, broadcasting baseless claims about Unsworth to Musk’s more than 22 million followers on the social network.

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But Musk’s legal team argued that his insults toward Unsworth are protected by the US Constitution. “The public knew from the outset that Musk’s insults were not intended to be statements of fact,” the motion said.

“Here, the reasonable reader would not have believed that Musk – without having ever met Unsworth, in the midst of a schoolyard spat on social media, and from 8,000 miles (1,280km) afar – was conveying that he was in possession of private knowledge that Unsworth was attracted to children or engaged in sex acts with children.”

Musk’s lawyers argued that his “over-the-top” insults were not fuelled by actual first-hand knowledge of Unsworth and that even if they were offensive, they were opinions.

British cave diver Vernon Unsworth (centre) walks next to a Thai soldier and policemen during the rescue operation for a youth soccer team and their coach, at the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, on June 30. Photo: EPA

According to the motion, reasonable readers would be able to tell the difference between Musk’s “off-the-cuff tweets and emails” and other formats in which factual statements about child abuse are conveyed, such as a newspaper exposé or a court document.

Musk’s lawyers also characterised Twitter as “a social networking website infamous for invective and hyperbole” and a “rough and tumble” platform.

Musk did not respond to a request for comment through his lawyers.

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The events leading up to Musk’s legal dispute began in June, as the harrowing rescue effort in Thailand was underway. As the operation gained global media attention, Musk pledged his help.

He said he would lead a team of engineers to build a mini-submarine that could squeeze through the cavern’s tight passageways and bring the boys to safety. But Musk’s plan drew scepticism.

After the successful rescue in July, which did not involve Musk’s mini-submarine, CNN broadcast an interview in which Unsworth described Musk’s plan as a “PR stunt” that had “absolutely no chance of working”, and said that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts”.

Musk retaliated soon after. He said on Twitter two days later that Unsworth was a paedophile and that he would make a video of the mini-submarine proving Unsworth wrong: “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”

Musk later apologised, but his remarks against Unsworth continued. In emails to BuzzFeed in August, Musk said Unsworth was a “child rapist” who had moved to Thailand for a 12-year-old bride.

Lin Wood, a lawyer representing Unsworth, told The Washington Post in a statement Thursday, “Mr Musk does not let the facts or well-established law get in the way of his novel but inaccurate contentions in his motion to dismiss.”

Wood added, “Furthermore, I entirely reject Mr Musk’s frivolous contention that all statements published on Twitter or other social media are protected speech.”