RICHMOND, Va. — A University of Virginia associate dean sued Rolling Stone magazine on May 12 for more than $7.5 million, saying a debunked and retracted account of an alleged gang rape on campus cast her as the “chief villain.”
Nicole Eramo, the top administrator dealing with sexual assaults at the Charlottesville school, said the lengthy and graphic magazine piece about a student rape victim identified only as “Jackie” portrayed her as more concerned about protecting the elite university’s reputation than helping victims of sexual assault.
“I am filing this defamation lawsuit to set the record straight — and to hold the magazine and the author of the article accountable for their actions in a way they have refused to do themselves,” Eramo said in a statement.
A report published by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism said Rolling Stone failed at virtually every step of the process, from the reporting by Sabrina Rubin Erdely to an editing process that included high-ranking staffers.
The criticism came two weeks after the Charlottesville police department said it had found no evidence to back the claims of Jackie, who said she was raped by seven men at a fraternity house in September 2012.
No one at Rolling Stone was fired or disciplined as a result of the article, titled A Rape on Campus. Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana posted an apology on the publication’s website, and Erdely also apologized in a statement.
The lawsuit was filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court. It also accuses Erdely and Wenner Media of making false and defamatory statements. Rolling Stone declined comment through a spokeswoman.
The fraternity where the alleged rape was said to have occurred, Phi Kappa Psi, has also signaled it plans to sue Rolling Stone.
Eramo’s lawsuit said the Rolling Stone piece stated that Eramo “intentionally tried to coddle Jackie” to persuade her to be silent about the assault.
“To personify the University’s alleged institutional indifference to rape, Erdely and Rolling Stone cast Dean Eramo, who met with and counseled Jackie, as the chief villain of the story,” the lawsuit states.
In a statement, U.Va. said the Rolling Stone piece “damaged the reputation of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia.”
The article roiled the U.Va. community, sparking protests at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house and a wrenching period of soul-searching by the university.
For Eramo, the article “had a devastating effect” with critics calling her a “wretched rape apologist” and “evil” in a wave of public correspondence following the publication of the article, the lawsuit said.
“As a woman who has dedicated her life to assisting victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse, Dean Eramo saw herself tarred in the national press as the chief architect of a conspiracy to suppress Jackie’s assault in order to protect U.Va.’s reputation,” according to the lawsuit.
Experts on libel law said they expected Rolling Stone would ultimately seek to have the case moved to federal court and that Eramo would be deemed a public figure, which establishes a higher legal standard to prove libel.
“Generally speaking, it is thought that these cases are better for the defendants in federal court,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at UCLA. “It’s easier to throw out the case on purely legal grounds before trial, or at least throw out parts of it.”
Volokh and Robert Drechsel of the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication each agreed that Eramo, as a public official or figure, would have to prove Rolling Stone knew what it published was false and went forward with the story anyway.
“It’s really a state of mind kind of thing and that’s really not easy to prove,” said Drechsel, Dean of the school’s Center for Journalism Ethics.
Volokh added, “If she were not a public official or a public figure, then in that case she would need to show mere negligence.”
Despite its flaws, the Rolling Stone article heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults amid a campaign by President Barack Obama.
The University of Virginia had already been on the Department of Education’s list of 55 colleges under investigation for their handling of sex-assault violations.
The article also prompted President Teresa Sullivan to temporarily suspend Greek social events. Fraternities later agreed to ban kegs, hire security workers and keep at least three fraternity members sober at each event.