The University of Virginia chapter of Phi Kappa Psi said Monday that the fraternity house will file a lawsuit against Rolling Stone, calling the magazine’s discredited reporting of an alleged gang rape by some of its members “reckless.”
A Columbia University report issued Sunday described significant lapses by the magazine's staff while reporting the gang-rape allegations, and the story's writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and the publication's managing editor, Will Dana, apologized for the deeply flawed account. But the fraternity noted in a statement Monday that Erdely did not apologize directly to the Phi Psi chapter at U-Va.
“The report by Columbia University’s School of Journalism demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit,” said Stephen Scipione, the fraternity’s U-Va. chapter president. “This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards.”
In a note to readers, Dana wrote that the magazine planned to revise editorial policies in light of the Columbia report. Rolling Stone spokeswoman Kathryn Brenner said there would be no comment on Phi Psi’s plans to sue the publication.
The original Rolling Stone story roiled the bucolic campus in Charlottesville. Students demonstrated on the steps of the Phi Psi fraternity house. Phi Psi members went into hiding after the building was vandalized.
In the immediate aftermath of the sensational story, critics questioned the university’s apparent lackluster response to sexual assaults on campus and its initially tepid response to the article. Later, U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan froze all Greek life activities on campus and the administration re-drafted the agreements fraternities must sign to be accepted on campus.
On Sunday, Sullivan issued a statement denouncing the original article.
“Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia,” Sullivan said. “Rolling Stone falsely accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed University staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.”
On Monday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) described the Rolling Stone account as “shameful.”
"The abject failure of accountability in journalism that led to Rolling Stone's 'A Rape on Campus' article has done untold damage to the University of Virginia and our Commonwealth as a whole," McAuliffe said in a statement. "More importantly, this false account has been an unnecessary and dangerous distraction from real efforts to combat sexual violence on our college campuses."
The U-Va. Phi Psi chapter spent “130 days of living under a cloud of suspicion as a result of reckless reporting by Rolling Stone Magazine,” according to the fraternity. A spokesman said that the chapter is considering expanding its lawsuit to include Erdely, the story’s author. The main subject of the story, a U-Va. student identified only as Jackie, declined to comment through her attorney, Palma Pustilnik.
In March, Charlottesville police detailed a months-long investigation that exonerated the fraternity and found there was no evidence to substantiate the sexual assault allegations described in Rolling Stone. The report also showed that U-Va. administrators acted quickly to provide Jackie with resources after she disclosed her alleged sexual assault and arranged for her to meet with detectives about the case. Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy J. Longo said last month that Jackie refused to cooperate with investigators.
Fraternity members told The Washington Post in the fall that they knew within hours of the article’s publication that there were significant discrepancies in the account. Phi Psi members said they used social media logs, digital records and financial statements to confirm that the fraternity did not host a function on Sept. 28, 2012, the night Jackie said she was attacked by seven Phi Psi members while two others watched.
Phi Psi members at U-Va. now pledge to undergo sexual assault awareness training and collaborate with sexual violence prevention groups on campus.
“Clearly our fraternity and its members have been defamed, but more importantly we fear this entire episode may prompt some victims to remain in the shadows, fearful to confront their attackers,” Scipione said. “If Rolling Stone wants to play a real role in addressing this problem, it’s time to get serious.”