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Judge dismisses Elon Musk's lawsuit against anti-hate watchdog on free-speech grounds

Tesla and SpaceX's CEO Elon Musk during an in-conversation event with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Lancaster House in London, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. Sunak discussed AI with Elon Musk in a conversation that is played on the social network X, which Musk owns.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, Pool)
Elon Musk in November 2023. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit brought by the company formerly known as Twitter, which sued a hate-speech watchdog group it blamed for a loss of millions of dollars in advertising.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that the lawsuit was intended to punish the Center for Countering Digital Hate for its criticism of X, and so violated California's ban on lawsuits designed to squelch speech.

After he acquired Twitter in October 2022, Elon Musk welcomed back numerous users who had been suspended for sending tweets that violated its terms of service, and he slashed the number of people who enforced those terms and moderated conversations on the platform. But his support for free speech on X had its limits; for example, X has at times blocked people from posting links to their work on other social media networks.

X filed suit last July against the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, after the organization documented the rise of anti-LGBTQ hate speech, misinformation and other trends around user accounts on the platform during Musk's tenure.

Major advertisers like Disney, IBM and Apple pulled their content after Musk endorsed an antisemitic tweet; he then expressed his frustration in a series of online posts about the loss of advertisers since taking over the company. The social media giant claimed it lost "at least tens of millions of dollars" in advertising partially because of the center's reports, according to the company's lawsuit.

X Corp. sued the nonprofit for breach of contract, claiming that center's researchers abused their access to user data and mischaracterized the information in their reports, articles and calls for companies to take their advertising dollars elsewhere. X Corp. compared the center to an “activist organization[] masquerading as [a] research agenc[y].”

In November, attorneys for the center moved to strike X Corp.'s lawsuit under a California law addressing "strategic lawsuits against public participation" — that is, suits intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics.

On Monday, Breyer granted that anti-SLAPP motion, denied X Corp.'s motion to re-plead its case and granted the center's request to strike and dismiss the suit. Breyer also granted a request to dismiss X Corp.'s claims against the European Climate Foundation.

Read more: Elon Musk visits Israel to meet top leaders as accusations of antisemitism on X grow

"Sometimes it is unclear what is driving a litigation, and only by reading between the lines of a complaint can one attempt to surmise a plaintiff’s true purpose," Breyer said in a 52-page order filed Monday. "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. This case is about punishing the defendants for their speech."

Breyer went on to write that X Corp. brought the case "in order to punish CCDH for CCDH publications that criticized X Corp. — and perhaps in order to dissuade others who might wish to engage in such criticism."

The court pointed out that X Corp. did not file a defamation lawsuit, which was significant — if the platform had, the center's lawyers would have gained the right to examine X Corp.'s internal communications about the content on its platform.

"It is apparent to the Court that X Corp. wishes to have it both ways — to be spared the burdens of pleading a defamation claim, while bemoaning the harm to its reputation, and seeking punishing damages based on reputational harm," Breyer wrote.

An email to X Corp.'s attorney seeking comment about the court judgment did not receive a response. Musk did not immediately respond to the court's ruling on X.

Read more: Musk's X fails to block California content moderation law

In a statement, Center for Countering Digital Hate CEO Imran Ahmed said the group's goal has always been to "alert the world to corporate failures that undermine human rights and civil liberties."

“The courts today have affirmed our fundamental right to research, to speak, to advocate, and to hold accountable social media companies for decisions they make behind closed doors that affect our kids, our democracy, and our fundamental human rights and civil liberties," Ahmed said.

Attorney Roberta Kaplan, who represented the center, said, "Today’s decision proves that even the world’s wealthiest man cannot bend the rule of law to his will."

"We are living in an age of bullies, and it’s social media that gives them the power that they have today," added Kaplan, who recently represented E. Jean Carroll in her successful defamation lawsuit against former President Trump. "It takes great courage to stand up to these bullies; it takes an organization like the Center for Countering Digital Hate."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.