U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

BuzzFeed receives second subpoena in ongoing Unsworth-Musk defamation lawsuit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
July 29, 2019
BuzzFeed News

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

A portion of the second subpoena received by BuzzFeed as part of a defamation case between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the caver Vernon Unsworth.

— Screenshot
October 28, 2019 - Update

Court quashes subpoena for BuzzFeed documents in case against Elon Musk

BuzzFeed News was not compelled to turn over documents in a case between tech billionaire Elon Musk and caver Vernon Unsworth, after a federal district court in California quashed a subpoena from Unsworth on Oct. 28, 2019.

BuzzFeed News and its reporter Ryan Mac were issued five subpoenas collectively by both parties in the suit. Unsworth sued Musk in September 2018 for defamation, alleging that Musk repeatedly labeled him a pedophile without evidence on Twitter and in communications with Mac. Those communications were published on BuzzFeed.

Unsworth subpoenaed BuzzFeed in July 2019 for any documents BuzzFeed had produced in response to a previous subpoena from Musk, website traffic metrics for the publication dates of articles concerning Musk’s dispute with Unsworth and data analytics for those articles. BuzzFeed agreed to produce the documents produced to Musk and nonprivileged website traffic and article metrics, but objected to the rest of the subpoena Aug. 23 on First and 14th amendment grounds.

Mac filed a motion to quash subpoenas from both parties for his testimony.

BuzzFeed News was shut down in May 2023. Christopher Hickman, associate general counsel at BuzzFeed.com, its parent company, told the Tracker in May 2024 that the subpoenas issued to BuzzFeed were quashed in October 2019 when the court partially granted Mac’s motion, ruling that the reporter did not have to testify for Musk and that his deposition for Unsworth be strictly limited in scope.

Unsworth’s suit was dismissed by the court in December 2019.

July 29, 2019

BuzzFeed News was issued a second subpoena in the ongoing defamation case between caver Vernon Unsworth and Tesla CEO Elon Musk on July 29, 2019. In total, five subpoenas were issued for reporting material and testimony from the digital news outlet and one of its reporters.

Unsworth is suing Musk for defamation, alleging that the tech executive repeatedly labeled him a pedophile without evidence on Twitter and in communications with BuzzFeed senior tech journalist Ryan Mac, the latter of which were published by the outlet.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reviewed the subpoena issued by counsel for Unsworth. The subpoena ordered BuzzFeed to produce all documents and communications produced in response to a previous subpoena by Musk’s counsel, as well as website traffic metrics on the dates articles concerning Musk’s dispute with Unsworth were published and data analytics for interactions with each article on BuzzFeed’s website and social media.

An email exchange between BuzzFeed attorney Kate Bolger and Unsworth attorney Taylor Wilson concerning the subpoena was documented in a subsequent motion. Bolger stated in the exchange, “BuzzFeed will produce the page views you requested provided you agree that no further response to the subpoena is required and that there will be no additional subpoenae.”

Wilson agreed not to file additional discovery subpoenas, but reserved the right to seek trial testimony.

BuzzFeed filed formal objections to the subpoena demands on First and 14th Amendment grounds on Aug. 23. The outlet did agree to provide copies of documents prepared in response to the Musk subpoena and non-privileged website traffic and article metrics.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].