Most of us have become accustomed to the idea of saying just about anything on social media without having to face any real consequences for our words, but Elon Musk is about to go to trial over a couple of words he posted on Twitter in the summer of 2018.

You might remember the case of the boys’ soccer team and their coach trapped in a cave in Thailand for several days before rescuers were finally able to get them all out. The incident gained international attention and Elon Musk sent a team of engineers from the three companies he leads. The engineers came up with three miniature submarines to help with the rescue, but the head of the rescue operation dismissed the submarines as impractical.

Vernon Unsworth, a British cave explorer who headed the expedition to rescue the group of young boys and their coach, told CNN that the submarines were a stunt designed to increase the visibility of Musk’s various brands.

Musk lashed out on Twitter, calling Unsworth a “pedo man.” Musk later deleted and apologized for those Tweets, but then in an email to a BuzzFeed reporter about the comments he had made, Musk told the reporter not to defend child rapists (referring to Unsworth), and he alleged Unsworth had a child bride. Unsworth has denied all of these allegations.

In September of 2018, Unsworth filed a defamation lawsuit against Musk that listed both his since-deleted Tweets and the email with the BuzzFeed reporter as evidence of his alleged defamation. Unsworth is seeking in excess of $75,000 in damages.

When it comes to people getting in trouble for saying negative things on Twitter about other people, the target of the negative comments is usually a celebrity or politician and the alleged defamer is relatively unknown, but in this case, it’s the other way around. Elon Musk is a very well-known public figure, whereas Unsworth is relatively unknown.

In his attempt to have the defamation lawsuit dismissed, Musk tried to claim that, because of his involvement in the very public rescue of the group of boys, Unsworth should be classified as a public figure, but Judge Stephen V. Wilson dismissed that assertion and is allowing the case to move forward with Unsworth classified as a private citizen.

Public figures have a much higher burden of proof to bear than private citizens. Our founding fathers wanted to encourage public discourse about public figures with the goal of developing and maintaining a more informed public. As a result, in order to successfully sue for defamation, public figures need to be able to prove that their alleged defamer knew their remarks were false at the time they made them and that they made those remarks with the intention of doing financial harm to the target of the remarks.

By contrast, private citizens only need to prove that their alleged defamer was negligent in making harsh and untrue comments about them.

Because it’s so unusual to see a private citizen suing a public figure for defamation over something that started on social media, no one quite knows how the jury will rule on this, but it will certainly be interesting to follow.

Our Chicago area and Oak Brook area defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites criticism of businesses and other matters of public concern. You can view here a federal court decision where we prevailed in a libel per se claim asserting the innocent infringer defense. Here is an arbitration decision where we won a decision in favor our client after we presented evidence and cross-examined the used car dealer defendant at a hearing where we proved that our client’s 20 plus Youtube videos voicing his opinion that a used car dealer committed consumer fraud were true, were protected opinions under the First Amendment, or involved inconsequential and minor errors of fact. We recently required a defendant who publicized an allegedly false lawsuit regarding our client to provide an apology and full retraction as part of a confidential financial settlement following our filing of a $16 million suit for libel per se in federal district court. You can read about that case here.

Lubin Austermuehle’s DuPage County defamation and slander lawyers near Evanston and Winnetka have more than three decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state business laws. Our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Elmhurst and Skokie near Evanston, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest.