The article, published online in November 2014, described the brutal and harrowing account of a student named Jackie, who described being gang raped in a fraternity house during the fall of 2012, her freshman year. She told a Rolling Stone reporter that seven men took turns assaulting her while two others watched, purportedly as part of a sadistic hazing ritual. Written by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the account of Jackie’s gang-rape soon became a rallying cry nationwide for sexual assault prevention advocates. Activists held demonstrations in Charlottesville in front of the fraternity house named in the article, Phi Kappa Psi, which was vandalized with spray paint labeling the brick mansion as a “center for rape.”
But Jackie’s allegations unraveled in the days after the Rolling Stone article published. A subsequent investigation by the Charlottesville Police Department and the Columbia University journalism school ultimately showed that Jackie’s allegations were false. Rolling Stone retracted Erdely’s story the following April.
A month later, Eramo filed the lawsuit against Rolling Stone. As the face of the administration for adjudicating sexual assault cases, she claimed in court documents that the article defamed her and caused irreparable harm to her reputation. Eramo is seeking $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages from Rolling Stone, according to the court complaint.
Both Eramo and Rolling Stone filed motions for summary judgment in July; both parties have asked U.S. District Court Judge Glen E. Conrad to decide whether or not the case should move to trial in the fall.
After five hours of court proceedings on Friday, Conrad said that aspects of the case likely will move forward to a jury trial.
Elizabeth McNamara, who is representing Rolling Stone, told reporters outside of the courthouse that she believes the case should be dismissed. McNamara argued in court that the burden falls on Eramo’s lawyers to prove that Erdely and the magazine’s editors acted with “actual malice” — meaning with a reckless disregard for the truth — when they published the allegedly defamatory claims.
McNamara said that up until Dec. 5, 2014, when the magazine published an editor’s note notifying readers about the article’s numerous inconsistencies, the staff had complete confidence in the account and believed Jackie’s allegations.
Libby Locke, who is representing Eramo, told reporters on Friday that Rolling Stone made a number of errors and missteps that constitute actual malice, including that the magazine ignored red flags in Jackie’s account and published the article anyway.
In court filings, lawyers for Rolling Stone have argued that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has concluded that U-Va. had what it considered to be a “hostile environment” for sexual assault survivors during the period Eramo oversaw the adjudication process, bolstering the article’s claims about U-Va.’s general approach to the issue. The magazine’s lawyers also assert that the associate dean was a public figure at the time the article was published, meaning that Eramo’s lawyers have to meet a higher standard to prove the defamation claim.
Conrad said that he will write an opinion based on Friday’s hearing that will settle several issues, including whether or not Eramo was a “public official” at the time the article was published, determinations that could possibly narrow the scope of the lawsuit.
Rolling Stone’s lawyers have written in court documents that the magazine’s reporter and editors believed Jackie was telling them the truth “and that Jackie was a credible and reliable source.”
But Erdely’s cache of notes, made public in court filings for the lawsuit, show a number of inconsistencies and weaknesses in Jackie’s account prior to the story being published, including that the tale of her assault closely mirrored the plot line from a Law and Order: SVU episode in which the protagonist is gang-raped in a fraternity house.
The magazine’s lawyers wrote that one of the issues was that Rolling Stone learned about Jackie from U-Va.: “In significant ways, Jackie’s story came with the imprimatur of U-Va.: Emily Renda, a U-Va. employee, who worked closely with Eramo, brought Jackie’s case to Erdely’s attention.”
Erdely’s notes point out that Renda, a 2014 U-Va. graduate, had referred to Jackie’s assault claims in testimony on Capitol Hill. But according to transcripts of Renda’s sworn testimony, she specifically noted that Jackie had been attacked by five men — not a total of nine, seven who participated and two who watched, as Jackie told the magazine — a discrepancy that indicated Jackie’s story had changed over time.
Conrad said in court that he will issue an opinion soon but indicated that he is likely to side with Eramo on certain issues and will leave it up to a jury to decide the outcome.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of the lawsuit against Rolling Stone. Though online court records indicate the lawsuit is for $10 million, Nicole Eramo is seeking $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages, according to the complaint. The story has been updated.