Lawyers representing Rolling Stone have asked a federal judge to overrule a jury’s decision that the magazine defamed a University of Virginia administrator in a retracted account of a fraternity gang gape.
The motion filed in federal court Monday came a month after a 10-member jury found Rolling Stone and journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely responsible for defaming former U-Va. dean Nicole Eramo in an article about campus sex assault published online in Nov. 2014. The jury awarded Eramo $3 million in November.
The article — “A Rape on Campus” — centered on the experience of a U-Va. student named Jackie and became one of the magazine’s most-read stories, attracting millions of readers. It highlighted what Rolling Stone described as a nationwide epidemic of sexual violence, specifically alleging that women at U-Va. faced indifference when reporting their assaults to university administrators. But the magazine retracted the article after a Washington Post investigation called into doubt key aspects of the account of a gang rape inside a fraternity house near campus.
In the filing on behalf of Rolling Stone and Erdely, the lawyers argue that the judge, Glen E. Conrad, should rule against the jury’s decision, particularly the jurors’ finding that the magazine published the article a second time in December 2014, when an editor’s note was appended to the online version of the story but the story itself remained unchanged. The jury concluded that by attaching the note at the top of the article the magazine was addressing a different audience of readers than those who had read the account the first time.
The magazine’s lawyers disagreed, writing: “There is no question that the article’s unraveling was a major black eye for Rolling Stone. It defies logic for a jury to find that by placing a prominent disclaimer on the article notifying readers that Rolling Stone no longer stood behind Jackie as a source, apologizing, and promising a full investigation, Rolling Stone was actually trying to recruit a new audience and spread now-discredited information from Jackie.”
In a statement, Eramo’s lawyer Libby Locke wrote that Rolling Stone’s lawyers newest filing was disingenuous.
“Rolling Stone baldly told the jury that they heard and respected the verdict in this case,” Locke wrote to The Post. “But that was obviously a lie. The very first thing that Rolling Stone filed after saying those words is a request to set the verdict aside. This is more evidence that Rolling Stone still doesn’t get it.”
Eramo’s legal team argued in court that the magazine failed to completely retract the article until April 2015, almost six months after the account was initially published. But Rolling Stone’s lawyers wrote in the new filing that “evidence at trial consistently shows that Rolling Stone’s intent was to prominently warn the public about the problems in Jackie’s story and apologize for its errors.”
The jury’s decision, if allowed to stand, could have lasting repercussions for journalism publications, Rolling Stone’s lawyers argue, writing that the jury’s finding could set a precedent that would discourage news organizations from acknowledging mistakes in a timely manner.
“Publishers will find a perverse incentive in this result: if you do the right thing by appending a correction, retraction, or apology to an online article as soon as you are aware that it may have problems, you risk ‘republishing’ the content and facing seven-figure liability,” Rolling Stone’s lawyers wrote. “Faced with these prospects, many reasonable publishers will choose to stay silent and not alert the public to concerns or errors in an article.”