When a female University of Virginia student came forth with allegations of a brutal sexual assault at a frat party, Rolling Stone thought it had a bombshell on its hands. But the story blew up in its face, as those claims unraveled in the weeks after it was published. After a police investigation found no evidence of the alleged crime and Rolling Stone retracted the story, UVA administrator Nicole Eramo, sued the magazine, its publisher, and the author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, for defamation.
Eramo, who oversaw on-campus sexual violence cases when the article was published, won her case last week, with a jury finding Rolling Stone knew or should've known elements of the story relating to Eramo were false.
It's not easy to win a defamation case, especially against a news publication. Not only do you need to prove the published assertions are false, you need to prove the writer, magazine, or publisher acted with "actual malice" (meaning that they knew the statements were false), or a "reckless disregard" for the truth (meaning that they had reason to doubt them, but failed to investigate further and published them anyway).
Eramo's lawsuit alleged that Rolling Stone defamed her by casting her as a villain in the article, making her the public face of a UVA administration indifferent to the accuser and other rape victims. Erderly's article claimed Eramo discouraged the accuser -- referred to as "Jackie" in the piece -- from reporting her allegations to police. It also contained a reference to Eramo's "nonreaction" when Jackie brought other allegations of gang rape at a fraternity to her attention.
The jury found that Erdely acted with actual malice when she published the statements about Eramo, and either knew or should have known the statements about Eramo were false.
The jury verdict isn't the end of the case, however; it must now decide what damages Erdely, Rolling Stone, and parent company Wenner Media owe. Eramo initially asked for $7.5 million, but may argue for a different amount following the verdict. In a statement following the verdict, the magazine said:
"For almost 50 years, Rolling Stone has aimed to produce journalism with the highest reporting and ethical standards, and with a strong humanistic point of view. When we published 'A Rape on Campus' in 2014, we were attempting to tackle the very serious and complex topic of sexual assault on college campuses, a subject that is more relevant today than ever. In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again. We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo."
There is no rest for the weary magazine, as the fraternity implicated in the story, Phi Kappa Psi, filed a $25 million lawsuit that is expected to go to trial next year.