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Judge dismisses Elon Musk's suit against hate speech researchers

Elon Musk, owner of X, sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate after the group published a series of reports detailing an uptick of hate speech on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Czarek Sokolowski
/
AP
Elon Musk, owner of X, sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate after the group published a series of reports detailing an uptick of hate speech on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

A federal judge has dismissed X owner Elon Musk's lawsuit against a research group that documented an uptick in hate speech on the social media site, saying the organization's reports on the platform formerly known as Twitter were protected by the First Amendment.

Musk's suit, "is so unabashedly and vociferously about one thing that there can be no mistaking that purpose," wrote U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in his Monday ruling, "This case is about punishing the Defendants for their speech."

Amid an advertiser boycott of X last year, Musk sued the research and advocacy organization Center for Countering Digital Hate, alleging it violated the social media site's terms of service in gathering data for its reports.

One of the group's findings, published in June, detailed how "racist, homophobic, neo-Nazi, antisemitic or conspiracy content" from paid users went unmoderated on the site.

During a February hearing, lawyers for Musk asked if the suit could be refiled against the research group, but Breyer declined that request. The judge said claiming the alleged data scraping was harming the platform's safety and security does not "make very much sense."

Judge is skeptical of Musk's claims

Researchers with the center say data was compiled using third-party tools that accessed publicly available information, but Musk contended that the group scraped large amounts of data from X without the company's permission, leading to a loss of advertising revenue in the tens of millions of dollars.

In a February hearing, Breyer appeared highly skeptical of X's arguments. He elaborated on those doubts in his Monday order tossing the suit.

"It is also just not true that the complaint is only about data collection," the judge wrote. "It is impossible to read the complaint and not conclude that X Corp. is far more concerned about CCDH's speech than it is its data collection methods."

Musk, a self-professed free speech absolutist, often says that nearly anything within the bounds of law should be allowed on X. However, Musk himself has been less tolerant of comments and remarks that cast him in a harsh light.

In November, Musksuedanother group, the left-leaning nonprofit Media Matters for America, over reports that documented how advertisements from major corporations were appearing alongside antisemitic content on X. The suit, which is still pending, calls the group's reports "a blatant smear campaign."

Musk did not return a request for comment on the Monday ruling, but in an email last month following a hearing in the case, Musk wrote: "Your org is not on X, therefore doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned," referring to NPR's decision last year to leave the platform.

Since the center won under California's so-called anti-SLAPP laws — which protect people and groups from frivolous lawsuits aimed at suppressing free speech — Musk will be on the hook to pay the group's legal fees.

"The specific amount of fees will need to be hashed out in court," said Ben Weich, spokesman for the group.

Musk has brought back previously suspended users to X

In 2022, after Musk purchased Twitter, he suspended the accounts of several journalists who covered Musk's takeover of the site, before reinstating them after a backlash.

Imran Ahmed, the founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, views Musk's suit as the billionaire's latest effort to silence criticism over how he is running the social media site.

"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," Ahmed said.

Since Musk completed his takeover of Twitter in October 2022, he has laid off a majority of its staff and brought back users who were suspended for things like espousing white supremacy and denying the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

He also turned the platform's verification system upside down by allowing users to pay for the once-coveted blue check mark.

Users of X who pay for Musk's premium service, some of them previously kicked off Twitter, have the ability to write longer posts and receive boosted visibility.

Musk has been inconsistent about the state of X's business.

At times, he says the business is strong, but other times, he points to advertising revenue being down 60% and floats the possibility of the company entering bankruptcy proceedings.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.