Judge tosses Elon Musk’s case against hate speech watchdog in excoriating rebuke

Mar 25, 2024, 12:28 PM

A federal judge on Monday threw out a lawsuit by Elon Musk’s X that had targeted a watchdog group...

A federal judge on Monday threw out a lawsuit by Elon Musk’s X that had targeted a watchdog group for its critical reports about hate speech on the social media platform. (Nathan Laine/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

(Nathan Laine/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

A federal judge on Monday threw out a lawsuit by Elon Musk’s X that had targeted a watchdog group for its critical reports about hate speech on the social media platform.

In a blistering 52-page order, the judge blasted X’s case as plainly punitive rather than about protecting the platform’s security and legal rights.

“Sometimes it is unclear what is driving a litigation,” wrote District Judge Charles Breyer, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, in the order’s opening lines. “Other times, a complaint is so unabashedly and vociferously about one thing that there can be no mistaking that purpose.”

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

X’s lawsuit had accused the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) of violating the company’s terms of service when it studied, and then wrote about, hate speech on the platform following Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October 2022. X has blamed CCDH’s reports, which showcase the prevalence of hate speech on the platform, for amplifying brand safety concerns and driving advertisers away from the site.

In the suit, X claimed that it had suffered tens of millions of dollars in damages from CCDH’s publications. CCDH is an international non-profit with offices in the U.K. and U.S.

Because of its potential to destroy the watchdog group, the case has been widely viewed as a bellwether for research and accountability on X as Musk has welcomed back prominent white supremacists and others to the platform who had previously been suspended when the platform was still a publicly-traded company called Twitter.

In December, for example, Musk restored 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 educators.

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

On Monday, Breyer wrote that CCDH’s writing about X “unquestionably constitutes” an exercise of the group’s free speech rights and that the group “makes a compelling case” that its data scraping from X “was newsgathering in furtherance of CCDH’s protected rights.”

He also said he was concerned about X litigating 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 dilatory motive — forcing CCDH to spend more time and money defending itself before it can hope to get out from under this potentially ruinous litigation,” he wrote. He added it would be “wrong” to let X amend its suit “when the damages it now alleges, and the damages it would like to allege, are so problematic, and when X Corp.’s motivation is so clear.”

To fight the allegations, CCDH partly relied on a California law whose purpose is to safeguard defendants from frivolous suits intended to chill 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 forbids plaintiffs such as X from getting around the statute through “artifices of pleading” such as breach of contract claims.

In a February hearing to consider CCDH’s motion to dismiss the case, Breyer mocked X’s arguments as “vapid” and said that X notably did not file a defamation claim against the nonprofit.

He repeated that criticism on Monday.

“If CCDH’s publications were defamatory, that would be one thing, but X Corp. has carefully avoided saying that they are,” Breyer wrote.

He added that X “wishes to have it both ways,” trying to impose “punishing damages” on CCDH but without having to clear the high bar of a defamation suit.

The judge’s dismissal of the suit “sends a strong message,” said Imran Ahmed, CCDH’s CEO, in a message on X.

“@CCDHate has won dismissal on all counts against @ElonMusk’s @X Corp’s outrageous and hypocritical SLAPP suit to silence our research,” Ahmed wrote. “This ruling sends a strong message to those who aim at intimidating and silencing independent research.”

In a separate statement, Ahmed added, “We hope this landmark ruling will embolden public-interest researchers everywhere to continue, and even intensify, their vital work of holding social media companies accountable for the hate and disinformation they host and the harm they cause.”

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

“Today a federal court in San Francisco issued a decision in the case X brought against the Center for Countering Digital Hate for illegally obtaining platform data 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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Judge tosses Elon Musk’s case against hate speech watchdog in excoriating rebuke