By Chris Dolmetsch / Bloomberg
December 27, 2018

(Bloomberg) — Elon Musk asked a judge to throw out a defamation lawsuit by a British caver whom the Tesla Inc. founder called a pedophile on Twitter. Musk says it was just an over-the-top insult that wouldn’t be taken seriously by any reasonable person.

A war of words erupted between Musk and Vernon Unsworth in July after a rescue effort of a boys soccer team in a flooded cave in Thailand. Unsworth told CNN that Musk staged a “PR stunt” by sending a mini-submarine that had “absolutely no chance of working” to help. Musk responded with a barrage of tweets, including one that said, “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”

On Thursday, in a request to dismiss the lawsuit, Musk said his insults weren’t intended to be statements of fact but were made in the middle of a “schoolyard spat on social media.” No one would reasonably believe he had private knowledge that Unsworth was attracted to children or engaged in sexual activity with them, Musk said.

“Musk’s statements were thus necessarily just imaginative attacks,” Musk’s lawyers said. “Even if offensive, such speculative insults are by their nature opinion and protected by the First Amendment.”

Lin Wood, Unsworth’s lawyer, said in an email that Musk “does not let the facts or well-established law get in the way of his novel but inaccurate contentions” in his request to dismiss the lawsuit. Wood said he rejects the argument that statements published on social media are protected speech.

“I am confident the trial court will likewise reject this fanciful position which, if adopted, would effectively prevent an individual from seeking redress for any and all false and defamatory attacks on reputation published on the internet,” Wood said.

Musk said he took to Twitter to defend the mini-submarine effort because he was “shocked by Unsworth’s indefensible and baseless attacks.” Musk noted he apologized in two subsequent tweets, and said his implications in an email to a journalist that Unsworth was a child rapist and engaged in child sex trafficking weren’t taken literally by anyone.

The case is Unsworth v. Musk, 18-cv-8048, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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