BuzzFeed News is not pleased with Tesla founder Elon Musk’s attempts to force one of its reporters to testify in a high-profile lawsuit.
In a court filing on Friday afternoon in California, the digital-media company dubbed Musk vindictive, and argued that the PayPal co-founder’s attempt to depose BuzzFeed News reporter Ryan Mac was part of a harassment and intimidation campaign.
“It is clear from Musk’s prior conduct that he would put Mac through the ordeal of a hostile deposition for no reason other than to retaliate against Mac for his critical reporting,” the filing said. “The deposition subpoenas must be quashed to avoid this oppressive outcome.”
The digital-media company is currently caught up in the high-profile legal spat between Musk and caver Vernon Unsworth, who sued Musk for defamation after the eccentric tech executive repeatedly dubbed him a pedophile without evidence.
In 2018, Musk sent an email to Mac, a BuzzFeed senior reporter, doubling down on his claim that the caver—who publicly criticized Musk’s plans to build a miniature submarine to rescue a Thai soccer team stranded in an underground tunnel—was a pedophile. Mac proceeded to publish the email, infuriating Musk, who claimed it was off-record, and not for publication.
On Friday, BuzzFeed’s legal team filed a motion to quash both Musk and Unsworth subpoenas, saying they were irrelevant and part of an intimidation campaign against BuzzFeed, and that Musk couldn’t be held accountable for the statements simply because he believed they were off the record.
BuzzFeed argued that there was no legal reason Mac was compelled to testify, and that the company had already provided all of Mac’s communications with Musk.
The company said that Musk “clearly harbors personal animosity against Mac personally,” and that the issue of harassment was “not a merely hypothetical concern in this case given Musk’s long history of attacking his critics in the press and considering his obvious hostility towards Mac.”
Further, BuzzFeed suggested there was a more sinister motive for Musk’s subpoena: the billionaire, according to BuzzFeed, had an “ulterior motive,” and hoped to “turn up something he can use against him later.”
“This is one of the most basic rules of engagement in journalism and, if Musk (a public figure who has freely engaged with journalists for years) regrets the consequences his decision to make unguarded statements to a reporter, he only has himself to blame,” the company said.
Regardless of whether BuzzFeed testifies, Musk likely faces an uphill battle challenging the defamation claim. While his team says Musk’s claims about Unsworth are “true or substantially true,” they have not presented evidence supporting its claims about the diver’s allegedly unsavory behavior. Instead, the team has argued that Unsworth brought the outburst on himself by starting the feud.
“Before Mr. Musk had said anything about Unsworth—or even knew who he was—Mr. Unsworth capped off his attacks on Mr. Musk with the terse suggestion that Mr. Musk take the miniature rescue submarine that he and his engineers had invented and built for the rescue and ‘stick it where it hurts,’” Musk’s team said earlier this year.