Elon Musk hints at legal claim over Twitter boycott and organizers yawn

As advertisers fled Twitter, Elon Musk boldly claimed he could sue the organizers of a boycott against the platform. The activists, however, were undeterred – and neither were the legal experts, who scoffed at the threat.

Last week, more than 40 public advocacy groups signed a letter urging Twitter’s top advertisers to remove ads from the platform unless the new owner promised to keep toxic and hateful content off the platform. Around the same time, at least nine companies — including big names like Pfizer and General Motors — stopped or suspended advertising for the company.

Musk lamented that Twitter “was experiencing a massive drop in revenue as activist groups pressured advertisers,” adding, not seeming to see the irony, “They’re trying to destroy free speech in America.”

On Monday, he went even further, responding to a tweet about whether Twitter had filed a “tortious interference” lawsuit against the boycott activists saying“This is what we do.”

Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at Free Press, an advocacy group that helped organize the print campaign on advertisers, is not concerned, saying the billionaire’s tweet “showed his complete misunderstanding of what the principles of free speech are and that boycotts themselves are protected speech.”

She added, “I guess I just don’t really understand how he couldn’t surround himself with constitutional law experts.”

Benavidez said she hopes Twitter’s advertisers will tap into their wallets and “demand more from a company that was already failing before Musk and has only gotten more toxic since Musk acquired it.”

Angelo Carusone, CEO of left-leaning media regulator Media Matters, which has also helped lobby, said he is also not losing his sleep over the volatile mogul’s next move. “You can never stop someone from suing you for ridiculous things,” he said, “but there’s no fear” of a potential lawsuit from Musk.

Tort law experts told The Daily Beast activists had little to worry about. Keith Hylton, a professor at Boston University School of Law, said tortious interference is typically asserted when a third party interferes in another’s business relationships — say, evicting their customers — solely to harm them. “It’s not like this person is trying to convince the customer to do business with them instead,” Hylton explained. “They’re just trying to destroy your relationship and that’s it.”

So, on the face of it, Musk could have a claim against the activists. But, Hylton said, it would be difficult for the billionaire to prove that activists alone caused advertisers to flee, not the companies that chose to do so. (General Motors, for example, stopped advertising on October 28 — days before the groups sent out a letter to advertisers.)

In addition, unauthorized interference usually requires an element of threat or violence. Simply asking advertisers to retract their ads isn’t illegal, Hylton said, nor does it explain the reasons why they should be retracted.

“If you have a civil rights group that sends out letters because they think they have a hate speech problem — well, they always do, that’s their business,” Hylton said. “It would be an odd thing to blame them for participating in speech, which they always participate in.”

The activists’ letter, he said, was merely a “call” from the group to advertisers — not a threat. Even if the letter contained some inaccuracies, they probably would not reach the level of lies that could be used as an argument for unlawful interference.

“If it’s about this letter, I don’t see the case,” he said.

Anthony Casey, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, added that a successful tortious interference lawsuit usually requires evidence of “rather extreme” behavior on the part of the defendants, which does not appear to be the case here.

“It’s a weak claim,” he said,

Neither Musk nor Twitter immediately responded to a request for comment.

Carusone said Musk’s aggression has deterred some big advertisers from making public statements because companies “know that the first one to make a big broadside statement will just get slammed by him.” Privately, however, several companies have reduced their spending.

Musk’s recent partisan tweets have further complicated the situation. On Monday, he urged his 115 million supporters to vote Republican in the upcoming midterm election in order to curb the power of the Democrat-held White House — and thereby mitigate what he called “the worst excesses of either party.” According to Carusone, advertisers worry that public criticism of Musk could be portrayed as retaliation for his support of Republican causes.

For now, Carusone predicted many companies will continue to cut spending or halt spending altogether — though Musk’s unpredictability requires advertisers to be agile.

“He could also tweet another crazy conspiracy and they would be forced to say something.” Elon Musk hints at legal claim over Twitter boycott and organizers yawn

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