On December 6, a federal jury in the Central District of California found that Tesla CEO Elon Musk did not defame cave diver Vernon Unsworth by referring to him in a tweet as “pedo guy.” Unsworth v. Musk, No. 2:18-cv-08048 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 6, 2019). Unsworth, who helped rescue a boys’ soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in July 2018, alleged that a series of tweets Musk published to his nearly 30 million Twitter followers were defamatory, falsely accused Mr. Unsworth of being a pedophile and child rapist, and caused Unsworth worldwide damage to his reputation and emotional distress. The jury deliberated for less than one hour before finding in favor of Musk.

During a CNN interview following the 2018 rescue, Unsworth had criticized Musk’s showing up to the cave site with a mini-submarine as a “PR stunt,” and said that the mini-submarine “had absolutely no chance of working” to save the boys. Unsworth’s complaint alleged that Musk retaliated against this criticism with a series of defamatory tweets and a series of defamatory emails sent to a Buzzfeed News reporter.


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The NCAA has traditionally restricted college athletes from accepting any endorsements or compensation related to their participation in college sports. But less than a month after California enacted the Fair Pay to Play Act, which will prohibit the NCAA from preventing college athletes in the state from profiting off their commercial identities starting in 2023, the NCAA’s board voted unanimously to allow students across the country to benefit from the use of their “names, images, or likenesses.”

Name, Image, and Likeness

The right to profit from the commercial use of one’s name, image, and likeness, referred to as the right of publicity, prevents others from exploiting one’s identity without consent. Arguably, the NCAA’s previous policies interfered with athletes’ rights of publicity—while the NCAA and its member schools profited from college athletes’ names, images, and likenesses, the athletes received no compensation.


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This Article is part of a series monitoring developments with regard to California Assembly Bill 5 and its impact on the entertainment industry.

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed into law Assembly Bill 5 (“AB5” or the “Bill”), which redefines the distinction between an employee and an independent contractor. AB5 is primarily targeted at gig economy companies such as Uber and Grubhub, whose workers had been classified as independent contractors up to this point. Proponents of AB5 argued that many gig economy workers worked full time but received none of the benefits commonly associated with full time employment—including overtime, minimum wage, and workers’ compensation. Consequently, AB5 was touted as providing increased benefits and rights to a growing gig economy workforce. An additional impetus for AB5 was the legislature’s desire to stem financial losses to the state as a result of worker misclassification, including the loss of tax revenues.


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Two federal courts recently dismissed defamation claims brought against the New York Times and the Kansas City Star, finding the subject articles employed standard investigative journalism techniques that immunized the newspapers from liability under state defamation laws.

In Croce v. New York Times Co., No. 18-4158 (6th Cir. July 17, 2019), the 6th Circuit upheld the dismissal of an Ohio State University cancer researcher’s defamation claim, finding that a “reasonable reader” would interpret the article as presenting both sides of the controversy.  The suit arose after the Times published an article examining Dr. Carlo Croce’s cancer research in the context of a broader piece about the inherent conflicts present when large research institutions reap millions of dollars in grant money for “star” researchers, and then are put in the position of investigating those researchers’ methods.
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