It was inevitable. University of Virginia Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo has filed a defamation suit over the Nov. 19, 2014, story in Rolling Stone magazine titled “A Rape on Campus” — a spectacularly flawed piece of journalism that the magazine later retracted. The suit, filed in the circuit court of the City of Charlottesville, cites as defendants the magazine itself, the story’s reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and publisher Wenner Media. The suit seeks a total of $7.85 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
“Defendants’ purpose in publishing the article was to weave a narrative that depicted the University of Virginia (“UV A”) as an institution that is indifferent to rape on campus, and more concerned with protecting its reputation than with assisting victims of sexual assault,” notes the complaint, written by Thomas Clare of Clare Locke LLP.
Eramo is a central character in Erdely’s story. As the head of the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board, she handles complaints from students, among other functions. In “A Rape on Campus,” Eramo is credited by Erdely as being a “den mother” for U-Va. victims of sexual assault. At the same time, the story — and Erdely’s comments to media outlets after its publication — hammered the university for its response to the central claim in Erdely’s piece — namely, that a freshman named Jackie was the victim of a horrific gang rape at a university fraternity in September 2012.
Erdely told The Post’s Paul Farhi: “As I’ve already told you, the gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.”
Here’s how Eramo’s complaint abridges her treatment in the Rolling Stone story:
To personify the University’s alleged institutional indifference to rape, Erdely and Rolling Stone cast Dean Eramo, who met with and counseled Jackie, as the chief villain of the story. Erdely and Rolling Stone claimed – both in the article and in a slew of media appearances and interviews designed to increase publicity for the article – that Dean Eramo intentionally tried to coddle Jackie to persuade her not to report her rape; that she was indifferent to Jackie’s allegations; that she discouraged Jackie from sharing her story with others; that she “abuse[d]” Jackie; that she did “nothing” in response to Jackie’s allegations; that she claimed that UV A withholds rape statistics “because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school”; that she did not report Jackie’s alleged assault to the police; that she “brushed off’ Jackie; and that she actively sought to “suppress” Jackie’s supposed gang rape.
In fact, counters the lawsuit, Eramo “immediately” went about assisting Jackie in putting her complaint before the police as well as university authorities. She did persuade Jackie to speak with the police. However, as the filing notes, “Dean Eramo’s efforts did not result in an official complaint or report to police — not because Dean Eramo tried to “suppress” Jackie’s allegations or persuade her to remain silent — but because Jackie adamantly refused to cooperate with law enforcement or name her alleged attackers.” Indeed, the Charlottesville Police Department earlier this year confirmed that Jackie didn’t cooperate in its investigation.
Rolling Stone magazine requested an investigation of its lapses by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and retracted the piece. Last month, Eramo wrote an open letter to Rolling Stone laying out her case and pleading for a fuller apology from the magazine. As we wrote at the time, it read like a prelude to a civil complaint.
As for damages, Eramo’s complaint cites the story’s “devastating effect on Dean Eramo’s reputation. As a woman who has dedicated her life to assisting victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse, Dean Eramo saw herself tarred in the national press as the chief architect of a conspiracy to suppress Jackie’s assault in order to protect UV A’s reputation.” She received gobs of hate mail, including one missive that labeled her a “disgusting, worthless piece of trash.”
There’s news in the complaint, too, in that it details the efforts of Eramo and her counsel to secure a direct apology from Rolling Stone. That process started in December, after Erdely’s story had pretty much collapsed. The reply from the magazine is somewhat shocking in light of the story’s infirmities. From the complaint:
Despite the mounting avalanche of evidence that the claims made in the article regarding Jackie’s alleged assault – and Dean Eramo’s alleged indifference to the alleged assault – were entirely false, Rolling Stone responded by letter through its attorneys, insisting that the article was “well sourced and fact-checked.”
The magazine then asked Eramo to cite “specific concerns.” Her attorneys responded with plenty such concerns, though Rolling Stone wasn’t budging. “Rolling Stone refused to retract the article and insisted that it stood by its reporting with respect to Dean Eramo, despite the fact that the entire world now knew that Jackie was not a credible or reliable source,” notes the lawsuit.
Eramo’s attorneys cite six counts of defamation in the complaint, two of those stemming from the print and online editions of the story. Three others relate to statements that Erdely made to various media outlets after the story shook the country. For example, Erdely on Nov. 26 appeared on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” and said this about her findings:
“[Jackie] was kind of brushed off by her friends and by the administration…. And
eventually, when she did report it to the administration, the administration did nothing about, they did nothing with the information. And they even continued to do nothing even when she eventually told them that she had become aware of two other women who were also gang raped at the same fraternity.”
Responds the complaint: “This statement is false. Dean Eramo did not do ‘nothing’ in response to Jackie’s allegations and did not continue to do nothing when Jackie claimed to know of other girls who were assaulted at the [fraternity] house.” Also cited are quotes that Erdely gave to The Washington Post and to a Slate podcast. Eramo also calls out a press statement issued by Rolling Stone in early December, stating:
The story we published was one woman’s account of a sexual assault at a UVA fraternity in October 2012 – and the subsequent ordeal she experienced at the hands of University administrators in her attempts to work her way through the trauma of that evening. The indifference with which her complaint was met was, we discovered, sadly consistent with the experience of many other UV A women who have tried to report such assaults. Through our extensive reporting and fact-checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.
Rolling Stone declined to comment on the suit.