NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive, has asked a US judge to dismiss a lawsuit by a British diver who helped rescue a boys football team trapped in a Thailand cave and said Mr Musk defamed him by calling him a paedophile and child rapist.
In a filing on Wednesday (Dec 26) with the US District Court in Los Angeles, Mr Musk's lawyers said their client's comments about Mr Vernon Unsworth were free speech protected by the United States Constitution's First Amendment even if they lacked any factual basis.
They also said Mr Musk's "over-the-top" comments came amid a "schoolyard spat on social media", including Twitter, where participants "expect to read opinions, not facts", and that no one could have reasonably believed they were truthful.
These statements were "just imaginative attacks; even if offensive, such speculative insults are by their nature opinion and protected by the First Amendment", the lawyers said.
Mr Musk on July 15 called Mr Unsworth a "pedo guy" in a tweet to more than 22 million Twitter followers, a comment for which he later apologised. He also urged a BuzzFeed News reporter in an Aug 30 e-mail to investigate Mr Unsworth and "stop defending child rapists". Mr Unsworth has denied those allegations.
Mr Unsworth said he became a target after rescue divers declined to use a mini-submarine offered by Mr Musk's SpaceX rocket company. He told CNN the offer was a "PR stunt" and the device would not have worked.
Mr L. Lin Wood, a lawyer for Mr Unsworth, rejected Mr Musk's defence, saying it would effectively doom all lawsuits over alleged false and defamatory attacks on reputation published online.
"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," Mr Wood said on Thursday. "I am confident the trial court will likewise reject this fanciful position." A hearing is set for April 1, 2019.
Mr Unsworth, who lives in Hertfordshire County north of London, sought at least US$75,000 (S$102,800) in compensatory damages plus unspecified punitive damages in his Sept 17 lawsuit.
The Thai football team, comprising 12 boys and a coach, was freed from the cave on July 10 after an 18-day ordeal.
Mr Musk has faced other litigation over his Twitter use. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accused him of securities fraud for saying he had "secured" funding to take Tesla private for US$420 per share, a big premium.
On Sept 29, Mr Musk agreed to pay a US$20 million fine and step aside as chairman of the Palo Alto, California-based electric car company for three years to settle the SEC case.