A federal jury in Charlottesville, Virginia awarded $3 million to a University of Virginia (UVA) administrator in her lawsuit over a debunked article about sexual assault on campus.
Last week, the jury ruled that Rolling Stone had defamed Nicole Eramo, who was formerly an associate dean at UVA.
The 9,000-word November 2014 article in Rolling Stone detailed the gang-rape of an anonymous student who went by the name of "Jackie." The article recounted the incident, which took place at a Phi Kappa Psi (Phi Psi) fraternity party, and Jackie's subsequent frustration with the administration's and her peers' responses to the allegations.
Shortly after the magazine published the article, the Washington Post uncovered inconsistencies in Jackie's account. A subsequent analysis published in the Columbia Journalism Review found "systematic failing" on the magazine's part, and a police investigation found "no substantive basis" for Jackie's claim. Rolling Stone retracted the article in April 2015.
Last spring, UVA associate dean of students Nicole Eramo filed a $7.5 million defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone—the third lawsuit against the magazine stemming from the "Rape on Campus" article. The other two were filed by alumni and active members of the Phi Psi UVA chapter.
Sexual assault advocates say that Jackie's story may be an exaggeration of a real assault she endured. But Eramo's lawyers wrote in court documents that there is "no factual basis whatsoever" so far "to conclude that Jackie is even an 'alleged' victim' of sexual assault, let alone an actual victim."
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In the case brought by Eramo, the jury found the defendants liable for defamation with actual malice—the standard applied to public officials in libel cases. The jury ruled that the article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, acted with actual malice in statements she wrote about Eramo, as well as statements she made in interviews following the article's publication.
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The jury also found that Rolling Stone and its parent company, Wenner Media, had defamed Eramo. The article was republished with an editor's note that recognized discrepancies in Jackie's account. But the jury argued that Rolling Stone and Wenner Media acted with actual malice by keeping the story online in its original form while also acknowledging that it was flawed.
"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," Rolling Stone said in a statement following the verdict. "We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo. It is our deep hope that our failings do not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students."
"This is a case about journalism; it's not about rape or whether Jackie was assaulted at a fraternity house," said Tom Clare, a lawyer for Eramo, in a closing statement. "It's about what happens to real people like Nicole Eramo when they become collateral damage in a quest for sensational journalism" (Sisario et al., New York Times, 11/4; Shapiro, Washington Post, 11/4; Mytelka, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/8).
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