Elon Musk’s social media company, X, sued Media Matters for America and one of its staff members Monday over an investigative report the progressive watchdog published saying that Nazi content ran on the X app alongside advertisements from major corporations.
News of the lawsuit coincided with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s announcement of an investigation into Media Matters for possible fraudulent activity.
“We are examining the issue closely to ensure that the public has not been deceived by the schemes of radical left-wing organizations who would like nothing more than to limit freedom by reducing participation in the public square,” Paxton said in a news release that Musk also posted on X.
Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said Sunday on X that his team was also looking into the matter. Bailey and Paxton are Republicans.
The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas, sought unspecified damages, as well as an order for Media Matters to remove the article.
Media Matters President Angelo Carusone said the website would defend itself.
“This is a frivolous lawsuit meant to bully X’s critics into silence. Media Matters stands behind its reporting and looks forward to winning in court,” he said in a statement.
The lawsuit is a major escalation of a fight involving Musk, his critics and X’s shaky relationship with advertisers. Musk set off a firestorm last Wednesday when he published comments on X embracing a conspiracy theory that many consider antisemitic, and Media Matters published its report the next day saying Nazi posts had run next to ads from Apple, IBM and other companies.
Many of those advertisers have paused their spending on X in response to the report. (They include Comcast and NBCUniversal. Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)
In the lawsuit, X alleged that Media Matters’ portrayal of the app was untrue because its article did not reflect what typical users see.
“Media Matters knowingly and maliciously manufactured side-by-side images depicting advertisers’ posts on X Corp.’s social media platform beside Neo-Nazi and white-nationalist fringe content and then portrayed these manufactured images as if they were what typical X users experience on the platform,” the lawsuit said.
The intention was to harm X’s advertising sales, according to the suit.
Media Matters, a nonprofit website, was founded in 2004 by David Brock, a former right-wing journalist who became a Democrat in the 1990s and is now a political consultant and commentator.
The lawsuit also named as a defendant Eric Hananoki, a senior investigative reporter at Media Matters and the author of the article. Hananoki did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit made a few specific legal claims. One was that Media Matters “intentionally interfered with contracts” between X and its advertisers. A second was that the website disparaged X with false statements and that it did so “with clear malice, well aware of their falsity.” And the third was that it unlawfully interfered with business relationships.
Under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech as interpreted by the Supreme Court, plaintiffs who are public figures must prove actual malice by other parties to win claims like defamation.
Daxton Stewart, a journalism professor at Texas Christian University and a lawyer, said the lawsuit was “frivolous.” He said that although the lawsuit was framed as defending free speech, it would do the opposite by penalizing a website.
“The huge problem is the First Amendment,” Stewart wrote in an email. “They’re asking a court to order the takedown of clearly protected commentary, and trying to escape the obvious First Amendment issues with that by cloaking it in contract interference language that suggests advertisers left the platform because of a Media Matters report rather than, say, their own judgment at seeing what Twitter has become.”
“It’s utter nonsense, of course, but that’s the way these self-described free speech warriors operate today,” he added. “The goal is to chill free speech, and we can only hope it doesn’t work.”
Musk and X do not dispute that Nazi material exists on the app, and Musk has defended its presence as evidence of free speech. In a statement he posted Friday, he said that of the nine posts highlighted by Media Matters, only one violated X’s content policies. He said X had limited the reach of that post.
The posts highlighted by Media Matters included a denial that the Holocaust happened, a quote about truth attributed to Adolf Hitler next to a photo of him and a post saying the rise of Nazism was a “spiritual awakening.”
Thomas Leatherbury, director of the First Amendment Clinic and a professor of law at Southern Methodist University in Texas, noted that none of the parties to the lawsuit is a citizen of Texas, which suggests "forum shopping," a strategy in which those pursuing a claim seek the most favorable jurisdiction.
He said the lawsuit also raises questions about whether the Texas court has jurisdiction over the defendants and noted that filing it in federal court sidesteps Texas' anti-SLAPP law, meant to deter lawsuits aimed at limiting speech.
As for Paxton's investigation, Leatherbury said he sees it as "a performative political stunt which furthers the troubling trend of punishing speech the AG doesn’t agree with while perversely claiming to encourage more free speech."
He pointed to other efforts by the attorney general's office to limit speech, including its defense of a state social media law aimed at limiting platform moderation and its efforts to prosecute Netflix for distributing the documentary "Cuties."
"The AG’s office and the Texas Legislature keep Texas’s First Amendment lawyers busy all the time," Leatherbury said in an email. "In our Clinic, the mantra is 'Texas, so many First Amendment violations, so little time.'"