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By Sara Randazzo and Tim Higgins
This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (December 4, 2019).
LOS ANGELES -- Elon Musk told a Los Angeles jury that a Twitter message he sent last year suggesting a man in Thailand was a pedophile wasn't, in fact, meant to connotate a dictionary definition of the word and was written in response to what he viewed as an unprovoked attack.
Tuesday marked the second time this year that the chief executive of both Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. was in court over his use of Twitter. The appearances underscore Mr. Musk's unusual relationship with the social-media platform that he has used to gin up publicity for his companies while also creating problems for himself.
Mr. Musk, dressed in a charcoal gray suit and sporting a tie, took the stand to defend himself against a lawsuit brought by British spelunker Vernon Unsworth. He accuses Mr. Musk of defamation over comments the entrepreneur made referring to him as "pedo guy."
"I just meant he was a creep," Mr. Musk said from the stand in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. He had made a similar defense during a deposition earlier this year, saying then that it was a common insult when he grew up in South Africa and meant a person is "a creepy old man."
The legal battle stems from the CEO's involvement in an effort to rescue a youth soccer team trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand during the summer of 2018. After prodding on Twitter, Mr. Musk tried to figure out how his engineers might help in their rescue. He updated his followers on Twitter with his progress and eventually settled on a submarine-like contraption that Mr. Musk ultimately flew to the rescue site.
The sub was never used and the boys were rescued by other means.
After their rescue, Mr. Unsworth, who helped in the early days of the high-profile operation, criticized Mr. Musk's solution during a CNN interview. He called Mr. Musk's effort a PR stunt and said he could "stick his submarine where it hurts."
Mr. Musk responded with a tweet on July 15, 2018, to his then-more than 22 million followers with a defense that concluded: "Sorry pedo guy. You really did ask for it." Responding to a Twitter user noting that he was calling Mr. Unsworth a pedo, Mr. Musk wrote: "Bet ya signed dollar it's true."
Asked Tuesday if at the time he sent that tweet he didn't know if the statement was true or false, Mr. Musk replied: "That's correct." He told jurors he didn't mean the "pedo guy" tweet as literally meaning he was a pedophile, just as he assumes Mr. Unsworth didn't literally intend to imply he should be sodomized with the submarine.
Arms crossed at times as he spoke from the stand, Mr. Musk said he took the CNN comments as an unprovoked attack on a good-natured attempt to help the children. "It was wrong and insulting, and so I insulted him back," he said.
Mr. Musk, who later deleted the tweets and apologized, in late August 2018 returned to the topic. He posted a tweet that seemed to further poke at Mr. Unsworth, reading in part, "You don't think it's strange he hasn't sued me?" Two days later, he wrote an email to a BuzzFeed News reporter, his comments subsequently published, that doubled down on his Twitter statements.
Mr. Unsworth brought his defamation lawsuit in September 2018.
Mr. Musk's lawyer, Alex Spiro, told jurors in opening remarks that Mr. Unsworth received widespread praise for his role in the rescue and didn't seem damaged by the online exchange. "They're joking, taunting tweets in a fight between men," he said to the jury of three men and five women. Throughout the openings, Mr. Spiro referred to the tweet at issue as a JDART -- a joking, deleted, apologized for, responsive tweet.
Taylor Wilson, a lawyer for Mr. Unsworth, countered that the insults directed at his client by Mr. Musk colored "what should have been one of the proudest moments of his life" and that he "did the only thing he could" by suing.
The episode is only one of the Twitter controversies that Mr. Musk generated last year at a time he was otherwise focused on Tesla's troubled business. The electric-car company faced increased scrutiny as it struggled with ramping production and delivering the Model 3 compact car.
Tesla has been able to avoid traditional advertising in part because of Mr. Musk's ability to harness the social-media platform to talk directly to his followers. His unveiling last month of an electric pickup was followed with updates about the vehicle on Twitter, including a tally of preorders that, Mr. Musk said, swelled to 250,000.
But his Twitter use has also engulfed Mr. Musk in public battles with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Postings he made last year on Twitter about plans to take Tesla private led to a lawsuit by the SEC claiming he misled investors.
Mr. Musk settled the case. As part of that settlement, he paid a fine, stepped down as Tesla chairman and agreed to have his tweets preapproved by the auto maker when it came to messages that might affect the company's stock price.
Mr. Musk was in a New York City court earlier this year before a judge after the SEC claimed he violated the terms of the settlement with tweets about production figures. The two sides resolved the matter with a more detailed agreement on what pronouncements he needs to get preapproved before tweeting.
Even before taking the stand Tuesday, Mr. Musk returned to Twitter at 12:33 a.m. in Los Angeles to take a shot at another online foe: investors betting against Tesla. "Short selling should be illegal," he wrote.
In his testimony Tuesday, Mr. Musk said "Twitter is a free-for-all" where people can write fact, fiction and "anything that comes to mind."
Write to Sara Randazzo at email@example.com and Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 04, 2019 02:47 ET (07:47 GMT)
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