The University of Virginia's (UVA) associate dean of students filed a nearly $8 million defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone on Tuesday for its portrayal of her in the now-discredited gang rape article that went viral in the fall.
The 77-page suit filed in the Charlottesville Circuit Court alleges reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely falsely depicted Nicole Eramo as indifferent toward a student who came to her about a sexual assault.
"I am filing this defamation lawsuit to set the record straight and to hold the magazine and the author of the article accountable for their actions in a way they have refused to do themselves," Eramo said in a statement.
UVA officials say Eramo is "well within her rights" to pursue the legal matter.
The Rolling Stone article gives the account of a student, identified as Jackie, who claimed she was gang-raped at a Phi Kappa Psi party her freshman year and goes on to detail her frustration with the administration's and her peers' responses to the allegations. In the article, the victim says she felt abandoned by the school and many of her classmates. She did not file a police report, but did report the incident to UVA's Sexual Misconduct Board.
Shortly after publication, the Washington Post raised questions about discrepancies between Jackie's account and information that could be independently verified. Later, an investigation by Charlottesville Police found "no substantive basis" a gang-rape occurred as reported in the magazine.
In December, the magazine's leaders officially retracted the story following an independent investigation by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism found "systematic failing" in the publication's reporting, editing, and publishing processes. No one at the publication was fired or disciplined.
Phi Kappa Psi officials also have said they are considering legal action.
The lawsuit argues that the magazine acted with "actual malice" by basing its entire account on one source and avoiding those who could—and later did—dispute Jackie.
Specifically, the suit alleges a quote was fabricated and that Eramo "coddled Jackie into inaction." In reality, it says, Eramo arranged two meetings between Jackie and police—both university and local.
A photograph of Eramo was also altered, according to the suit. The magazine cut-and-pasted a shot of Eramo giving a thumbs-up, taken in a classroom setting, into a drawing "sneering while a sexual assault victim sits crying in front of her," she says.
Rolling Stone's staff "actively avoided" information that did not align with Jackie's story, the lawsuit says, as well as "recklessly disregarded Jackie's repudiation of the defamatory statements they planned to make regarding Dean Eramo."
The strong case will likely end in a settlement, says attorney and former journalist William Oglesby.
"Anyone in that position would take certain basic steps to corroborate what they heard when what they heard was this inflammatory," he says (Quizon, Charlottesville Daily Progress, 5/13).
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