This story has been updated.
Three Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers are suing Rolling Stone magazine in New York federal court for defamation, alleging that a now-retracted December 2014 article on rape at the University of Virginia identified them as taking part in a vicious gang rape.
The three U-Va., graduates, George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler, filed the lawsuit in New York federal court Wednesday against Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist who wrote the 9,000-word account, which alleged a gang rape at the Phi Psi fraternity house during a party. The article was retracted in April after a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism review concluded that it was deeply flawed.
“As young men who have dedicated their lives to obtaining the merits to attend UVA, maintaining good grades and obtaining undergraduate degrees, while also becoming involved in UVA activities, pledging a fraternity and finding lifelong brothers and friends, Plaintiffs have been embarrassed to admit that they are members of Phi Kappa Psi as a result of the article and its accusations,” according to the filing entered in U.S. District Court in New York.
The three fraternity brothers are requesting a trial by jury and seek more than $75,000 for “mental anguish and severe emotional distress,” caused by the article and its aftermath.
The lawsuit (read the entire document below) centers on Erdely’s reporting of a brutal sexual assault that had allegedly occurred inside the U-Va. Phi Psi house in Sept. 2012. The story led with a detailed description of a fraternity party inside the house that devolved into a ritualized rape for new members of the fraternity. The main character, a U-Va. junior named Jackie, claimed that seven Phi Psi members took turns raping her in a second floor bedroom while two older fraternity brothers watched.
According to the lawsuit, Elias lived in a second floor bedroom of the fraternity at the time of the alleged attack, which led members of the U-Va. community to intuit his involvement in the crime.
Several members of the fraternity told The Washington Post that they were deeply affected by the story but knew it was false almost immediately after it was published.
In an interview with the Washington Post in January, Elias. who works for a Washington-area construction firm, said that he treasures his years at Phi Psi but that after the Rolling Stone article published, he found himself doubting the people he knew best. As the fraternity was vilified, Elias said, he hesitated to admit to co-workers that he was a member.
“The day it came out was the most emotionally grueling of my life,” Elias told The Post, adding that the alleged ritual gang rape hit the hardest. “It assumes that everyone that is part of the frat had to do that, and that hurt a lot of us.”
Though none of the alleged attackers were described by their real names in the Rolling Stone story, the three fraternity brothers allege in the lawsuit that they were harassed after the article’s publication and that details in the article led members of the public to begin identifying them as being involved in the assault.
A Charlottesville Police Department investigation concluded in March that there was no evidence that a sexual assault had occurred in the Phi Psi house as described in the Rolling Stone article.
This is the section of the Post story in January that included Elias:
George Elias, a 2013 graduate, said he took pride in the bonds he forged with the 16 other members of his Phi Psi pledge class. He arrived in Charlottesville in 2009, coming from the Philadelphia suburbs as the only senior in his 1,000-student graduating class to enroll at U-Va., and he joined Phi Psi after he was impressed by the brothers.
“I didn’t know anyone in the frat,” said Elias, 24. “They were very accepting of all kinds of people, and they didn’t judge you from your background.”
Elias treasures his years at Phi Psi, but when the Rolling Stone article was published, he found himself doubting the people he knew best. As the fraternity was vilified, Elias said, he hesitated to admit to co-workers that he was a member.
“The day it came out was the most emotionally grueling of my life,” said Elias, who works for a Washington-area construction firm.
He said that members of the fraternity began analyzing the article and quickly challenged troublesome assertions, including that the alleged gang rape was part of a hazing ritual at Phi Psi.
“That ritual part hit hard for everyone,” said Elias, who lived in the Phi Psi house his junior and senior years, including in fall 2012, when the attack was alleged to have occurred. “It assumes that everyone that is part of the frat had to do that, and that hurt a lot of us.”