The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity chapter at the University of Virginia filed a $25 million lawsuit Monday against Rolling Stone magazine, which published an article in 2014 that alleged a freshman was gang raped at the house during a party.
The lawsuit focuses on a Rolling Stone article titled “A Rape on Campus,” which detailed a harrowing attack on a freshman named Jackie at the Phi Psi house on Sept. 28, 2012. The article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, described how Jackie was raped by seven men while two others watched in a second floor bedroom while a fraternity party raged downstairs. The article alleged that the attack was part of a hazing ritual at the long-time U-Va. fraternity.
The Washington Post found significant discrepancies in the Rolling Stone account, including that the fraternity did not host a party that night in 2012 and that a student identified by Jackie as her main attacker was never a member of the fraternity and did not attend U-Va.
Two investigations — by the Columbia University journalism school and the Charlottesville Police Department — later confirmed that there was no gang rape at the fraternity.
“The fraternity chapter and its student and alumni members suffered extreme damage to their reputations in the aftermath of the article’s publication and continue to suffer despite the ultimate unraveling of the story,” the Phi Psi chapter said in a statement Monday. “The article also subjected the student members and their families to danger and immense stress while jeopardizing the future existence of the chapter.”
Rolling Stone retracted the story in April, and the magazine’s editor, Will Dana, later resigned.
A spokesperson for Rolling Stone declined to comment Monday.
In July, three U-Va. alumni members of the Phi Psi fraternity filed a federal lawsuit in New York against Rolling Stone. One of the fraternity members, George Elias, wrote in the lawsuit that he lived in a second floor bedroom of the house in 2012, which led members of the U-Va. community to assume he possibly took part in the alleged gang rape.
The magazine also faces a $7.5 million federal lawsuit filed by Nicole Eramo, a U-Va. associate dean who assists sexual assault survivors on campus and who alleges that she was vilified in the Rolling Stone account.
In the wake of the Rolling Stone article’s publication, the Phi Psi house was vandalized, windows were broken and anonymous activists scrawled “UVA Center for Rape Studies,” on the building.
“In the most scurrilous traditions of yellow tabloid journalism, Rolling Stone published a devastating story it knowingly failed to verify, in reckless disregard for truth or falsity, or the essential safety, dignity, and welfare of the organization or of those lives it was willing to crush with its defamatory article,” the fraternity contends in the lawsuit. “The story was simply too tempting, too sensational, to let facts get in the way.”
In the complaint, filed in state court in Charlottesville, the 54 undergraduate members of the fraternity describe living through the backlash of the article’s publication in November 2014.
The fraternity brothers say they faced vicious threats online, taunts in classrooms and suffered in recruiting new prospects to join the house. While in past years the fraternity typically hosted about 800 students during recruiting events, Phi Psi saw just 300 participants during rush as a result of the article, according to the lawsuit. Of those who did take part in the events, a number of the students had “no intention of pledging, but who rather were attending rush out of a curiosity to walk into the ‘rape house,’ ” one Phi Psi member wrote in the lawsuit.
Many alumni removed their affiliation with the fraternity from their résumés out of concern that Phi Psi membership could hurt their job prospects.
According to the fraternity’s complaint filed in state court: “This defamation action is brought to seek redress for the wanton destruction caused to Phi Kappa Psi by Rolling Stone’s intentional, reckless, and unethical behavior.”