While many watchful eyes are fixed on President Trump’s Twitter feed during his UK visit to take part in this week’s NATO summit, across the pond a court will hear the trial of another public figure who has developed a reputation for dramatic Twitter interventions.
This week sees the launch of the libel trial brought by British diver Vern Unsworth against Elon Musk in relation to Musk’s well-publicised tweets following the dramatic rescue of a group of schoolchildren trapped in a flooded Thailand cave. After Unsworth dismissed Musk’s unsolicited provision of a submarine to assist the rescue as a “PR stunt”, Musk took to Twitter to respond, calling Unsworth “pedo guy” in the process.
We have previously written about this case which has brought Twitter spats and libel law into the public consciousness. Persephone Bridgman Baker’s piece in the Law Society Gazette looked at the different factors Unsworth and his legal advisers would have considered when deciding whether to bring the claim in the US, where Musk is based, or here in the UK.
Unsworth has pursued his claim in Los Angeles where he has been assisted by a Court ruling that he is not a public figure, which means he does not have to prove Musk acted with actual malice. Musk has reportedly defended himself on the basis that “Pedo guy” was a common insult when he was growing up in South Africa and that he did not mean to imply Unsworth was a paedophile.
It is doubtful that argument would work here – where the courts apply the standard of an ordinary, reasonable reader when determining the meaning of libellous statements – but trigger happy Twitter users will no doubt be keeping a watchful eye on proceedings in the US.