Rolling Stone magazine says it did not defame a University of Virginia administrator in publishing a story that implied she did not take seriously an allegation that a student had been raped by members of a campus fraternity.
The magazine defended its actions in a response filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, the publication’s first detailed remarks concerning a multimillion-dollar defamation complaint by Nicole Eramo, an associate dean at U-Va.
Eramo, who filed the lawsuit in May, is seeking $7.5 million in damages. She says she was portrayed as callous and indifferent to a claim of a fraternity gang rape on campus; she says she took the claim seriously, contacted police and worked closely with the woman who said she had been attacked. The magazine steadfastly denies Eramo’s allegations, and its attorneys are seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed in court.
Eramo is now U-Va.’s top administrator addressing sexual assault claims at the flagship university. Her lawsuit focuses on last fall’s 9,000-word exposé, “A Rape on Campus,” by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
The story began with a vivid narrative in which a student named Jackie claimed to have been brutally raped at a campus fraternity in 2012, possibly part of a hazing ritual for new members, and that university officials ignored her allegations.
Eramo said she was portrayed as the story’s “chief villain” representing the U-Va. administration and argues in her lawsuit that the Rolling Stone story destroyed her credibility, tarnished her life’s work and hurt campus efforts to help sexual assault survivors.
After reports in The Washington Post in December showed inconsistencies in Rolling Stone’s reporting of the alleged attack — including that there was no fraternity party the night of the attack; that there was no member of the fraternity fitting the assailant’s description; and that Jackie’s friends disputed key details of the account — Charlottesville police concluded that the rape claims could not be substantiated.
The magazine retracted the article after the Columbia University journalism school also found serious discrepancies in the account.
“Rolling Stone and Erdely’s highly defamatory and false statements about Dean Eramo were not the result of an innocent mistake,” according to the lawsuit. “They were the result of a wanton journalist who was more concerned with writing an article that fulfilled her preconceived narrative about the victimization of women on American college campuses, and a malicious publisher who was more concerned about selling magazines to boost the economic bottom line for its faltering magazine, than they were about discovering the truth or actual facts.”
In a detailed rebuttal, the magazine’s lawyers acknowledge that the Columbia report, commissioned by Rolling Stone, found that the original U-Va. story was deeply flawed.
The editors and Erdely apologized for their mistakes. But attorneys for Rolling Stone deny that the magazine libeled Eramo, noting that the account also highlighted that she is seen as an asset to the community of rape survivors on campus.
Rolling Stone’s attorneys alleged that Eramo’s assertions in the lawsuit “are not capable of being proven true or false” and therefore not subject to legal action. They also state that the editors and Erdely did not publish the story “with actual malice” against Eramo, meaning that they did not know that the information was false.
In addition, the magazine’s attorneys say that the original article was not published “with recklessness, negligence or any other applicable degree of fault” and that the story was vetted by fact-checkers.
“At the time of publication, they had no doubts as to the truth of the article,” the attorneys wrote.
Libby Locke, the attorney for Eramo, said the magazine’s response shows that her client has a strong case.
“It is unfortunate, however, that Rolling Stone continues to deny wrongdoing and seeks to avoid all responsibility for their malicious and reckless journalism that has caused Dean Eramo and the entire UVA community so much harm,” Locke said.