Federal judge throws out Elon Musk’s lawsuit against hate speech watchdog CCDH
Federal judge throws out Elon Musk’s lawsuit against hate speech watchdog CCDH

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Elon Musk, billionaire and CEO of Tesla, at the Viva Tech trade show in Paris, France, on Friday, June 16, 2023.


A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit by Elon Musk’s X that targeted a watchdog group over its critical reporting on hate speech on the social media platform.

In a mammoth 52-page order, the judge blasted X’s case as clearly criminal rather than protecting the platform’s security and legal rights.

“Sometimes it is unclear what constitutes litigation,” District Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California wrote in the opening lines of the order. “At other times the complaint is so shameless and loud about one thing that there can be no mistake to that end.”

“This case represents the latter circumstance,” Breyer continued. “This case is about punishing the defendants for their speech.”

X’s lawsuit accused the Center to Counter Digital Hate (CCDH) of violating the company’s terms of service when it investigated and then wrote about hate speech on the platform after Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October 2022. X blamed reports by CCDH that show the prevalence of hate speech on the platform to heighten brand safety concerns and drive advertisers away from the site.

In the lawsuit, X claims to have suffered tens of millions of dollars in damages from CCDH’s publications. CCDH is an international not-for-profit organization with offices in the UK and USA.

Because of its potential to devastate the watchdog group, the case is widely seen as leading to investigation and accountability of X, as Musk welcomes back prominent white racists and others to the platform who were previously suspended when the platform was still a publicly traded company called Twitter.

In December, for example, Musk reinstated the X account of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who lost a $1.5 billion judgment for spreading false theories about a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six teachers.

The judge’s ruling Monday also illustrates the limits of Musk’s claim to be a “free speech absolutist.”

On Monday, Breyer wrote that CCDH’s writing about X “undoubtedly constituted” an exercise of the group’s free speech rights and that the group “has made a compelling case” that extracting data from X “is news gathering in support of the protected rights of CCDH”.

He also said he was concerned that X was suing in bad faith and denied the company an opportunity to amend and refile its breach of contract claim.

“The court is concerned that X Corp’s desire to amend its breach of contract claim has a delaying motive – forcing CCDH to spend more time and money defending itself before it can hope to escape this potentially damaging litigation.” , he writes. He added that it would be “wrong” to allow X to amend its case “when the damages it now claims and the damages it would like to claim are so problematic and when the motivation of X Corp. is so clear.’

To fight the charges, CCDH is relying in part on a California law designed to protect defendants from frivolous claims aimed at chilling their speech. California’s law against so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) is among the toughest in the nation. On Monday, Breyer wrote that California’s anti-SLAPP law prohibits plaintiffs like X from circumventing the statute through “pleading gimmicks,” such as breach-of-contract claims.

In a February hearing to consider CCDH’s motion to dismiss the case, Breyer derided X’s arguments as “empty” and said X specifically had not filed a defamation claim against the nonprofit.

He repeated that criticism on Monday.

“If CCDH’s posts were defamatory, that would be one thing, but X Corp. carefully avoids saying they are,” Breyer writes.

He added that X “wants to have it both ways,” seeking “punitive damages” against CCDH, but without having to overcome the high bar of a defamation lawsuit.

The judge’s dismissal of the case “sends a strong message,” Imran Ahmed, CCDH’s chief executive, said in a statement to X.

“@CCDHate won a dismissal of all counts against @ElonMusk’s outrageous and hypocritical SLAPP suit at @X Corp to silence our research,” Ahmed wrote. “This decision sends a strong message to those who seek to intimidate and silence independent research.”

In a separate statement, Ahmed added: “We hope this important ruling will encourage public interest researchers everywhere to continue and even strengthen their vital work to hold social media companies accountable for the hate and misinformation they host and the harm they cause . ”

X, meanwhile, said in a statement published on the platform that he disagrees with the court’s decision and plans to appeal.

“Today, a federal court in San Francisco issued a judgment in an X case filed against the Center to Counter Digital Hate for unlawfully obtaining data from a platform to create misleading research,” the company said in a post. “X disagrees with the court’s decision and plans to appeal.”

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