Eric Wedgewood (creator of a once-popular meme account on social media) sued The Daily Beast Company LLC (Daily Beast) for defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). On March 11, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the Daily Beast’s motion to dismiss the complaint. See Wedgewood v. The Daily Beast Company LLC, No. 19 C 3470 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 11, 2020).
According to the Daily Beast article (see infra), Wedgewood has used many pseudonyms over the years, including the pen name Heiko Julien. On April 14, 2018, an anonymous user (not Wedgewood, but using the handle @HeikoJulien) began posting screenshots of direct messages that Wedgewood had allegedly sent to underage girls through a social media account. After eight days, the anonymous account was shut down.
Two weeks later, on April 25, 2018, the Daily Beast published an article titled “‘He Started Messaging Me When I Was 16’: Female Memers Slam ‘Content Zone’s’ Creator,” referring to Wedgewood. The article quoted two anonymous women who claimed that Wedgewood sent them inappropriate messages while they were underage, and it reported that Wedgewood had shut down his accounts after being accused of sending inappropriate messages to underage girls.
After the Daily Beast published its article, Wedgewood sued the Daily Beast in Illinois state court on grounds of (1) defamation; (2) placing him in a false light; and (3) IIED. In response, the Daily Beast removed the case to federal court, where it moved to dismiss Wedgewood’s complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) (failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted).
As the district court explained, under Illinois law a statement is defamatory if it “tends to cause such harm to the reputation of another that it lowers that person in the eyes of the community or deters third persons from associating with him.” Kolegas v. Heftel Broad. Corp., 607 N.E.2d 201, 206 (Ill. 1992). Additionally, a claim for defamation requires proof that: (1) the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff; (2) the defendant made an unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party; and (3) this publication caused damages. Perfect Choice Exteriors, LLC v. Better Bus. Bureau of Cent. Ill., Inc., 99 N.E.3d 541, 547 (Ill. App. Ct. 2018).
The court also explained that damages arising out of defamation may be pleaded in one of two ways. In Illinois, a statement is considered defamatory per se, and damages may be presumed, “if its harm is obvious and apparent on its face.” Otherwise, a statement is defamatory per quod, thereby requiring specified damages, “if extrinsic facts are needed to establish that the statement is harmful to the plaintiff’s reputation.” Van Pelt v. Bona-Dent, Inc., No. 17 C 1128 (N.D. Ill. May 16, 2018). Further relevant here, a statement is defamatory per se if it involves “words which impute the commission of a criminal offense” or “words that prejudice a party, or impute lack of ability, in his or her trade, profession or business.” Kolegas, 607 N.E.2d at 206.
In this case, the court expressly declined to reach the question of whether the statements published by the Daily Beast were false because it agreed with the Daily Beast’s principal contention that Wedgewood could not establish damages. See Wedgewood, at 4, n.3. Thus, the primary issues before the court were whether Wedgewood’s defamation claim involved presumed damages and, if not, whether Wedgewood had pleaded a claim for specific damages.
As to the former, Wedgewood argued that the Daily Beast’s article was defamatory per se because it implied that he had committed a criminal offense by soliciting underage girls to perform sexual acts. However, under the “innocent construction rule,” a statement is not actionable per se if it “may reasonably be interpreted as asserting something other than what is implicated by the [relevant] per se category.” Van Pelt, supra (citing Chapski v. Copley Press, 442 N.E.2d 195, 199 (Ill. 1982)). Thus, while the court agreed that Wedgewood’s interpretation of the Daily Beast’s statements was plausible, it also concluded that another reasonable reading of the Daily Beast article was that Wedgewood had merely communicated with underage girls with no intention of progressing to physical acts. Therefore, it held that Wedgewood’s claim did not involve defamation per se, nor could damages be presumed.
Regarding specific damages, the court noted that Wedgewood’s complaint included only “vague references to ‘loss of income [and] loss of reputation'” and that such allegations were insufficient to meet the high standard required for defamation per quod claims. See Taradash v. Adelet/Scott-Fetzer Co., 628 N.E.2d 884, 888 (Ill. App. Ct. 1993) (“General allegations of damages, such as damages to an individual’s . . . reputation or general economic loss, are insufficient to state a claim of defamation per quod.”). Thus, the court concluded that Wedgewood had failed to specifically allege damages, and it consequently granted the Daily Beast’s motion to dismiss Wedgewood’s claim for defamation.
Next, the court turned to Wedgewood’s claim that the Daily Beast had placed him in a false light that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. In a brief paragraph, the court reasoned (and Wedgewood conceded) that the false light claim would rise or fall with the defamation claim. Thus, the court dismissed Wedgewood’s false light claim as well.
Last, the court explained that Wedgewood’s claim for IIED required him to allege three elements: (1) the defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous; (2) the defendant knew that there was a high probability that its conduct would cause severe emotional distress; and (3) the conduct in fact caused severe emotional distress.” Swearnigen-El v. Cook Cty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, 602 F.3d 852, 864 (7th Cir. 2010). Further reasoning that “defamatory statements . . . do not clear the high hurdle for extreme and outrageous conduct, Fields v. Jackson, No. 16 C 1961 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 19, 2017), the court concluded that Wedgewood had failed to state a claim for IIED and dismissed the remainder of Wedgewood’s complaint.
For now, the Daily Beast has successfully defended itself against Wedgewood’s claims. Notably, though, the court granted Wedgewood leave to amend his complaint before April 8, 2020. Thus, it is unclear as to whether this matter is settled for good. Even if Wedgewood can remedy his defamation claim (and potentially his false light claim) by adequately pleading specific damages, he will still need to prove the additional elements of defamation (e.g., falsity, knowledge of falsity, and unprivileged publication) to ultimately succeed.