Newly released emails show University of Virginia officials telling a Rolling Stone journalist that a sexual assault incident she was reporting on was “objectively false.” The pushback was part of a largely collegial set of interactions in the months leading up to publication of the magazine’s highly flawed Nov. 19 story “A Rape on Campus.” The story, which led with an alleged September 2012 gang rape of a freshman named Jackie at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, prompted a public uproar and a definitive university response that shut down fraternity activities, but the tale in recent weeks has come unraveled on account of inconsistencies in the gang-rape scenario presented by the magazine.
More than 100 pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal a pretty standard back-and-forth between an investigative reporter and an institution under scrutiny. The documentary trail begins in early September, as Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely contacts U-Va.’s Nicole Eramo, head of the sexual misconduct board, in an effort to secure an interview regarding the university’s handling of sexual assault complaints. In the resulting flurry of communications, Eramo pulls in the university’s public relations team. That pretty much squelches things, as Erdely reported in her story:
And yet the UVA public-relations team seemed unenthused about this article, canceling my interview with the head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board, and forbidding other administrators from cooperating; even students seemed infected by their anxiety about how members of the administration might appear. And when President Sullivan was at last made available for an interview, her most frequently invoked answer to my specific questions about sexual-assault handling at UVA – while two other UVA staffers sat in on the recorded call – was “I don’t know.”
The documents show that Rolling Stone fact-checker Elisabeth Garber-Paul jumps into the correspondence on Nov. 7, asking the U-Va. people a bunch of very detailed and excellent questions about procedures for handling sexual assault complaints — reporting that assumes a prominent spot in the story. Those questions concerned whether Eramo was the primary intake person for complaints, whether other administrators receive complaints and whether complaints get included in university reports, among other queries.
Another key revelation is that Garber-Paul pushed U-Va. on the most chilling statistic in this whole mess: that there have been “183 expulsions for honor code violations since 1998, and zero expulsions for sexual assault.” The response from university spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn: “To my knowledge, these numbers are accurate.”
Erdely chafed at the restrictions that the press people were looking to impose on her interview with President Teresa Sullivan. In a Sept. 16 missive, she wrote to her handlers: “As for the presence of other people in the interview: If that’s the only way I’ll be allowed to talk to President Sullivan, then so be it. But I imagine a university president is fully capable of getting through a phone conversation, without help. My article will obviously mention the way UVA has sought to restrict and pad my access to its administrators.”
There are limits to an e-mail FOIA request: Erdely conducted some business with U-Va. officials over the phone, and the written correspondence reflects some of this. But most intriguing is an e-mail from de Bruyn to Garber-Paul, which reads as follows, in part:
Good morning, Liz-
One additional note. As I mentioned to you, we have expressed our concern to Sabrina regarding what we believe to be her mischaracterization of facts about a case that occurred in Spring 2014. I recall I mentioned this to you on the phone.
It has been brought to our attention by a few students that Sabrina has spoken to that she is referencing an incident where a male student raped three different women and received a one-year suspension. This is in fact objectively false.
As I told Sabrina at the time, federal privacy laws prohibit us from disclosing details of any sexual assault report…
Now, that e-mail is dated Nov. 13. A month earlier, on Oct. 9, de Bruyn included this note in an e-mail to Erdely: “One additional matter. As we said during our phone interview, federal privacy laws prohibit us from disclosing details of any sexual assault report, investigation, or hearing. That said, your characterization of the facts of the spring 2014 case you referenced in our interview is incorrect.”
Meaning: The university, to the extent it could, was attempting to steer Erdely away from her reporting.
Though it’s difficult to say just what incident is under discussion here, Erdely’s piece does contain a significant discussion of an incident that resembles the one referenced in the e-mails. Here it is:
Rolling Stone has discovered that this past spring a UVA first-year student, whom we’ll call Stacy, filed a report stating that while vomiting up too much whiskey into a male friend’s toilet one night, he groped her, plunged his hands down her sweatpants and then, after carrying her semi-conscious to his bed, digitally penetrated her. When the Charlottesville DA’s office declined to file charges, she says, Stacy asked for a hearing with the Sexual Misconduct Board, and was surprised when UVA authority figures tried to talk her out of it. “My counselors, members of the Dean of Students office, everyone said the trial process would be way too hard on me,” says Stacy. “They were like, ‘You need to focus on your healing.’ ” Stacy insisted upon moving forward anyway, even when the wealthy family of the accused kicked up a fuss. “They threatened to sue deans individually, they threatened to sue me,” she recalls. But Stacy remained stalwart, because she had additional motivation: She’d been shaken to discover two other women with stories of assault by the same man. “One was days after mine, at a rush function at his frat house,” says Stacy. “So I was like, ‘I have to do something before someone else is hurt.’ ” Her determination redoubled after the Dean of Students office informed her that multiple assaults by a student would be grounds for his expulsion – a mantra that Eramo repeated at a Take Back the Night event in April.
We’ve reached out to U-Va. for further information on this matter.
As for the narrative thread of “A Rape on Campus” — Jackie’s case, that is — it’s hard to find in this trove of correspondence: After scouring the documents, the Erik Wemple Blog hasn’t yet found any mention. We’ll keep looking.