U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

BuzzFeed receives third subpoena in ongoing Unsworth-Musk defamation lawsuit

Incident Details

Date of Incident
August 21, 2019
BuzzFeed News

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

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

— Screenshot
October 28, 2019 - Update

Court quashes Elon Musk’s second subpoena for BuzzFeed documents

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 second subpoena from Musk 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.

Musk subpoenaed BuzzFeed in August 2019 for any documents the outlet had produced to Unsworth, documents related to the decision to publish Musk’s emails, a copy of the outlet’s standards and ethics guide from before the emails were published and documented deliberations around amending the guide after publication, as well as any policies governing the publication of “off the record” or “on background” conversations.

BuzzFeed objected to the subpoena on Sept. 6, but produced the prepublication standards guide and documents it had given to Unsworth. 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.

August 21, 2019

BuzzFeed News was issued a third subpoena in the ongoing case between caver Vernon Unsworth and Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Aug. 21, 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, which was the second filed by counsel for Musk and the third it received overall. The subpoena ordered BuzzFeed to produce, in part, a copy of the version of the outlet’s Standards and Ethics Guide posted on buzzfeednews.com between August and September 2018. BuzzFeed, while maintaining its objections to the request, complied.

The subpoena also demanded all documents relating to the decisions around publishing the contents of Musk’s emails to senior technology reporter Ryan Mac and to amending the outlet’s ethics guide after the article was published. It also requested copies of all policies governing the publication of ‘off the record’ or ‘on background’ conversations.

BuzzFeed filed objections to the subpoena on Sept. 6 on the grounds that the requested documents were irrelevant, protected by various privileges (including the reporter’s privilege) and would be unduly burdensome to search for and review.

The outlet did, however, comply with Musk’s demand for copies of documents and communications produced in response to Unsworth’s subpoena.

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