Judge Overseeing Elon Musk’s Crusade Against Media Matters Owns Tesla Stock

Elon Musk‘s X, formerly Twitter, has aggressively gone after watchdogs reporting on the hate speech that came to saturate the platform after he bought it in 2022. The company argues that such research is to blame for major advertisers — the ones Musk famously told to “go fuck yourself” — abandoning ship.

So far, legal attacks on organizations pointing out X’s abundance of extremist content have been rebuffed: a judge tossed X’s suit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate in March on First Amendment grounds, ruling that Musk’s lawyers were trying to muzzle free speech with intimidation tactics. Currently, Media Matters for America, an anti-misinformation nonprofit, faces a similar suit — considered “bogus” by legal experts — over an article detailing how the site served pro-Nazi posts next to ads while Musk himself endorsed antisemitic conspiracy theories. But the venue for this fight may be more favorable for X.

That’s because X v. Media Matters for America is playing out in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, where District Judge Reed O’Connor is assigned to the case. (Judge Mark Pittman recused himself from the case in November without citing his reasons.) O’Connor is the notoriously partisan George W. Bush appointee who in 2018 declared the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional in an attempt to repeal it entirely (the Supreme Court struck down that widely mocked decision), and has a long record of other rulings that align with right-wing ideology. It would be of little surprise if he were sympathetic to X’s efforts to prevent journalists from accurately conveying how much far-right extremism and misinformation is hosted on the platform.

Media Matters, for its part, filed a motion on June 17 outlining how O’Connor hearing the case could present a conflict of interest, though it has nothing to do with the judge’s political views. Instead, counsel from Elias Law Group and Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher argued two main points: First, that automaker Tesla is an interested party in this matter, since Musk exercises enormous control over that company and complete power over X, often blurring the boundaries between the two, such that the outcome of this lawsuit will affect both Musk and Tesla. Secondly, that according to his most recent financial disclosures, O’Connor “may own between $15,001 and $50,000 of Tesla stock,” which would require recusal if Tesla is deemed an interested party.

That Musk as a public figure is virtually synonymous with the businesses of X and Tesla rests at the heart of the motion, which requests that X file a certificate identifying Tesla and its shareholders as interested persons in the case. “At Musk’s direction, X has routinely used Tesla employee time, resources, and even office space as its own — with documented consequences to Tesla stock,” it states. “Because of this commingling, and in light of the public’s reasonable perception that both X and Tesla are stand-ins for Musk, Tesla’s financial interest in this lawsuit is clear. X’s victory or defeat will necessarily impact Tesla, including the price of its stock.” Moreover, the filing argues, were Musk to testify in the suit, it would have a material affect on the value of his companies.

Laying out the claim that O’Connor is financially interested in a case has a very recent precedent. In March, the judge had to recuse himself from hearing a suit by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and banking trade groups seeking to block a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that caps most credit card late fees at $8. That decision came just before government watchdog group Accountable.US released a statement revealing that O’Connor had “invested up to tens of thousands of dollars” in banks that are members of the Chamber of Commerce, including Capital One, Frost Bank, Visa, and Commerce Bank. The group also noted O’Connor’s “long-standing ties to the Federalist Society,” a conservative legal organization that has received between $800,000 and $1.1 million in donations from the Chamber since 2008. After O’Connor excused himself from the case, Accountable.US said this “last-minute” decision should have come sooner.


O’Connor, whose court deputy did not return a request for comment on the latest motion from Media Matters, has the option to recuse himself from hearing this lawsuit at any time. Meanwhile, X has a deadline of July 8 to respond to the motion calling them to acknowledge Tesla and its shareholders as interested parties. Media Matters and their counsel were unable to speak on the record with Rolling Stone about their legal strategy.

Even without O’Connor on the case, Media Matters will have to contend with some other judge in the largely conservative Northern District of Texas, an arena bound to be more receptive to X’s efforts to censor progressive institutions that criticize it. Media Matters did score an important win back in April, when D.C. District Court Judge Amit Mehta blocked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from launching an investigation into the nonprofit on the heels of X’s lawsuit. Even so, amid the ongoing legal battle — which may well reach the Supreme Court — the organization was forced to lay off more than a dozen employees last month. Media Matters president Angelo Carusone said the cuts were necessary “to ensure that we are sustainable, sturdy and successful for whatever lies ahead.”