An appeals court has revived a lawsuit filed by three alumni of the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at the University of Virginia against Rolling Stone surrounding the magazine’s discredited account of a fraternity house gang rape.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York, ruled Wednesday that the defamation lawsuit filed by Phi Psi alumni George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler can proceed to trial.
The ruling means the magazine must return again to court to battle claims over the 2014 article. The decision comes the same week that Rolling Stone’s founder, Jann Wenner, announced plans to sell his controlling share of the magazine, in part because of the publication’s eroded reputation.
Titled “A Rape on Campus,” the 9,000-word account explicitly detailed a pledging ritual that devolved into a brutal gang rape inside the U-Va. Phi Psi house in September 2012. Investigations by the Charlottesville Police Department and the Columbia University School of Journalism concluded no such attack took place. The magazine subsequently retracted the story.
A former university dean sued the magazine and won; a jury at first awarded her $3 million, but the U-Va. administrator later agreed to a settlement. Members of the U-Va. Phi Psi chapter also filed suit and settled their case for $1.65 million.
A third case, filed by Elias, Hadford and Fowler, initially was dismissed after a lower court found the three alumni members had not shown enough evidence that readers could have inferred the article was about them.
But the appeals court ruled sufficient evidence did exist, including that Elias had occupied a bedroom in the fraternity resembling the room described in the Rolling Stone article and that Fowler had served as a pledging leader the year of the alleged assault. The court also found that Hadford, as an upperclassman in the fraternity, could join the suit as a member of the case’s small group for a defamation claim.
“We are disappointed with the 2nd Circuit’s ruling today, but are confident that this case has no merit,” Rolling Stone spokeswoman Kathryn Brenner said.
An attorney representing the three fraternity brothers, Alan L. Frank, said the legal team is pleased with the appeals court ruling.
“We think this will permit these young men to have their day in court before a jury,” Frank said. “We’re gratified by the result.”