University Of Virginia Dean Files Defamation Suit Against Rolling Stone
The first of what is likely to be many defamation suits related to Rolling Stone's discredited campus rape story has been filed.
Late last year, Rolling Stone published a powerful expose of alleged campus rape at the University of Virginia focusing on the tale of a woman named Jackie who claimed that she had been raped at a party at one of the school’s most prominent fraternities. Coming as it did on the heels of other reports of alleged campus rape and the mishandling of cases by school authorities, the report struck a powerful nerve. In Charlottesville, the Administration acted quickly by suspending the fraternity in question pending an investigation and temporarily halting all Greek activities on campus. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the story told in the Rolling Stone article suffered from serious flaws that brought its credibility into question. From the beginning, the fraternity in question denied any culpability in the alleged incident and, very quickly, follow-up reporting by other media organizations revealed serious flaws in the narrative put forward in the article. The Washington Post, for example, published a detailed report several weeks after the original article that made it clear that the assault in question never took place, at least not as it was related in the article. For example, several of the friends of “Jackie” that were referenced in the original article said that they had doubts about the story she had related to them from the beginning. Additionally, the Post established that the physical description of the fraternity house in the article did not match what the building actually looked like at all, and that there was in fact no party on the night the assault allegedly took place or at any time near that date. Apparently, the author of the Rolling Stone piece didn’t bother to check on these items, in no small part because Jackie had apparently asked her not to talk with the alleged rapist or anyone at the fraternity. Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review released a detailed report on the incident and found numerous violations of journalistic ethics and good practices by Rolling Stone and by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the reporter behind the story. In response, the magazine has essentially rescinded the story, although nobody associated with the original report has been fired or disciplined.
Yesterday, in what is sure to be the first of many rounds of litigation arising out of this, an Associate Dean at the University of Virginia filed a defamation suit against the magazine, the reporter, and others involved in compiling the report:
A University of Virginia associate dean of students filed a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine Tuesday, alleging that it portrayed her as callous and indifferent to allegations of sexual assault on campus and made her the university’s “chief villain” in a now-debunked article about a fraternity gang rape.
Nicole Eramo is seeking more than $7.5 million in damages from Rolling Stone; its parent company, Wenner Media; and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the investigative journalist who wrote the explosive account of sexual assault on the campus in Charlottesville. The magazine retracted the article after news organizations and the Columbia University journalism school found serious flaws in it.
Eramo, who is the university’s chief administrator dealing with sexual assaults, argues in the lawsuit that the article destroyed her credibility, permanently damaged her reputation and caused her emotional distress. She assailed the account as containing numerous falsehoods that the magazine could have avoided if it had worked to verify the story of its main subject, a student named Jackie who alleged she was gang-raped in 2012 and that the university mishandled her case.
“Rolling Stone and Erdely’s highly defamatory and false statements about Dean Eramo were not the result of an innocent mistake,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court. “They were the result of a wanton journalist who was more concerned with writing an article that fulfilled her preconceived narrative about the victimization of women on American college campuses, and a malicious publisher who was more concerned about selling magazines to boost the economic bottom line for its faltering magazine, than they were about discovering the truth or actual facts.”
The complaint focuses on a 9,000-word exposé called “A Rape on Campus,” which caused a sensation when it was published online in November. The article began with a vividly detailed narrative of a brutal sexual assault at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012. Jackie, identified by only her first name, said that as a freshman she was ambushed at a party, with seven men taking turns raping her while two others watched.
According to Eramo’s lawsuit, filed by the Clare Locke law firm in Alexandria, the magazine alleged that Eramo acted disdainfully to Jackie’s claims, “did nothing in response” and sought to suppress “Jackie’s alleged gang rape to protect UVA’s reputation.”
“Erdely and Rolling Stone’s epic failure of journalism was the result of biased, agenda-driven reporting,” the lawsuit says. The suit claims that the magazine’s account represented “a purposeful avoidance of the truth, and an utter failure to investigate the accuracy of Jackie’s claims.”
The magazine also printed a photo illustration of Eramo that she argues is inflammatory; the lawsuit says that the magazine turned a mundane Cavalier Daily student newspaper photo of her addressing a classroom and turned it into a wild-eyed image of her sitting in an office and giving a thumbs-up in front of a distraught sexual assault victim as protesters hold signs outside. The lawsuit claims the doctored image “demonstrates the lengths Erdely and Rolling Stone were willing to go to portray Dean Eramo as a villain
The complaint details that after the article’s publication, Eramo received hundreds of spiteful e-mails from alumni and others who judged her based on her portrayal in Rolling Stone. In addition to containing rape and death threats, the messages described Eramo as a “wretched rape apologist” and “a disgusting, worthless piece of trash” who should “burn in hell forever.”
As the article gained international attention, Eramo lost sleep, had difficulty eating, experienced emotional distress and sought counseling, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also alleges that Eramo, emotionally and physically drained, suffered surgical complications during an operation to treat a recurring case of breast cancer, leading her to spend additional days in the hospital.
Eugene Volokh has a long post summarizing the allegations and causes of action in Eramo’s lawsuit.
It’s not at all surprising that litigation is resulting from what Rolling Stone did last year. The CJR report, along with the Post’s investigation in December, established pretty clearly that neither the author of the articles nor any of the employees at Rolling Stone who were supposed to be supervising her work followed anything resembling proper journalism in compiling and publishing the report. Rather than seeking to verify even basic facts of what Jackie was telling them, they took her claims at face value and acceded to her ridiculous demands that they not speak to anyone connected to the fraternity, or to the student that she was accusing of a serious crime. Even under the most stringent standards for defamation that would apply to public figures, which probably doesn’t apply here because Eramo likely doesn’t qualify as a “public figure” for purposes of the standard set forth in New York Times v. Sullivan, it seems rather obvious that the parties acted with such a reckless lack of investigation of the basic facts that they were reporting that, at least at this early stage of the litigation, it seems hard to see what kind of credible defense they could possibly mount. That doesn’t preclude, of course, the possibility that they could mount such a defense, and Eramo will still have the burden of proof as to both the facts and the damages if this case does go to trial. However, given what we know right now, it seems as though this might be a case that the Defendants would want to try to settle prior to trial. This would seem to be especially true that this lawsuit, if it does go to trial, would be heard by a jury comprised largely of people residing in the Charlottesville, Virginia area who are likely to be more sympathetic to Eramo than they are to a media corporation from New York City and a reporter from Pennsylvania.
Eramo’s lawsuit is not likely to be the end of this matter. As Eugene Volokh discussed in blog posts both back in December and then again after the release of the CJR report last month, there are a number of potential parties that could have claims against all or some of the parties involved in this matter. This could include individuals in addition to Eramo, such as other university employees named in the report, members of the fraternity, and the person accused of rape, although he was never identified by name. It could also include institutions such as the fraternity itself and even the entire University of Virginia. In those cases, establishing both the facts of a defamation claim and damages would likely prove to be more difficult than they would be in the case of specifically named individuals such as Eramo. At the same time, though, one imagines that other parties are taking notice of what this Associate Dean has done and are planning accordingly. For their sake, one hopes that the Defendants in this case have sufficient insurance coverage and some good attorneys, because they are most likely going to be making use of both quite a lot in the coming years.
Here’s a copy of the Complaint: