Calif. Appeals Court Rules Against Elon Musk’s Claims Against Sikh American’s Defamation Lawsuit
- Tesla critic and short-seller Randeep Hothi had sued the Tesla CEO alleging that he falsely accused him of actively harassing and “almost killing” Tesla employees.
A California appeals court last week ruled that Tesla founder Elon Musk’s public statements that an Indian American critic of his company “harassed” and “almost killed” Tesla employees are not protected by the anti-SLAPP statute. The statute allows a defendant to file a special motion to strike a complaint filed against him/her based on the right of petition or free speech.
According to the court order, a copy of which was sent to American Kahani, Musk’s statements were denied because “they did not relate to a public issue and were not in connection with an issue before the court because the prior petition had already been dismissed and the statements were unrelated to the fee motion.”
In a Dec. 14 hearing, the court ruled in favor of Randeep Hothi, an outspoken Tesla critic and short-seller, who, in August 2020, filed a defamation lawsuit against Musk. The lawsuit was filed in Alameda County Superior Court in California alleging that Musk falsely accused him of actively harassing and “almost killing” Tesla employees.
Hothi, the man behind the Twitter account @skabooshka, is a Sikh American and a doctoral student in Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.
Calling the court ruling “a great win,” Hothi’s attorney Gill Sperlein told American that Musk’s attempt to get the case tossed on anti-SLAPP grounds was likely a stall tactic. “The appeal was likely a delaying tactic on the part of Musk and his legal team. Now, we move forward with litigation and look forward to proving our case in court,” he said. “We are looking forward to establishing that what Musk said about Randeep Hothi is a lie.”
Earlier, this year, in a Jan. 27 ruling, Judge Julia Spain rejected Musk’s argument that Hotha’s suit was baseless and should be thrown out as an attempt to silence the billionaire’s free speech. At the time Sperlein told American Kahani that the ruling in favor his client was “a significant development.”
Hothi filed the lawsuit regarding an email Musk sent to Aaron Greenspan, the founder of law transparency site PlainSite. In response to questions from Greenspan about Musk’s history of speaking out against Tesla critics and whistleblowers, Musk had mentioned Hothi by name. Greenspan then posted screenshots of the messages to Twitter.
Hothi’s tussle with Tesla began in 2018 when he took pictures of a tent being erected at Tesla’s Fremont, California, facility. After posting the photos on Twitter, Hothi claimed in the suit that Musk and Tesla investigated Hothi and took down his license plate number. In February 2019, Hothi visited Tesla’s sales center at its Fremont facility. According to Hothi’s suit, it was an “attempt to gather information about Model 3 production.” He claims Tesla recognized his license plate and sent a security guard to confront him.
Two months later, Hothi says he photographed a Tesla test vehicle with roof-mounted cameras used for capturing video and audio for the company’s autopilot feature. Tesla employees inside the car recorded Hothi’s plates and informed Musk.
The incidents led Tesla to file a temporary restraining order against Hothi in April 2019, which claimed that Hothi had hit the security guard with his car at Tesla’s Fremont factory and had endangered those driving the Tesla car by “swerving dangerously close to the vehicle.”
In his lawsuit, Hothi claims that Tesla’s restraining order against him has led to harassment accusing him of being “a liar, a murderer, a terrorist, and a deranged maniac.” He also claimed that he has and will suffer a loss of wages and business opportunities as a result of Musk’s statements. Hothi is seeking unspecified damages.
In a Jan. 22, 2020 article on Hothi, Bloomberg said he was born in Punjab and grew up in Fremont, “not far from the Tesla factory.” The report described him as “a voracious reader and devout Sikh,” who “was obsessed with philosophy in high school but had trouble focusing.” After attending a local community college and excelling there, Hothi transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy in 2009.
In his University of Michigan profile, Hothi says he is “interested in how minority communities—specifically diasporic Sikhs — creatively respond to the world around them.” Noting that “Sikhs in the West are undergoing something of a renaissance” in art, literature, media, and politics, he said “Sikhs also face a host of acute challenges – xenophobia, the memory of state-sponsored violence in India, and the articulation of Sikhism. This presents an opportunity to examine how a globally dispersed community responds to the challenges of cross-cultural encounter while also developing their own Sikh institutions.” Hothi said that his interest in Sikh Studies “is inspired by a real need to contribute knowledge to Sikh communities while also contributing to academic debates in the humanities and social scientists.”