Rolling Stone lawsuit: Trial begins over debunked rape article

A defamation trial against the magazine begins on Monday. A police investigation found no evidence of the assault at the center of its 2014 article.

Steve Helber/AP/File
Students participating in a rush pass by the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., in 2015. The house was depicted in a debunked Rolling Stone story as the site of a gang rape in September 2012.

A defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine over its discredited coverage of a college student's gang rape will begin in federal court on Monday, perhaps marking the first time the public has heard from "Jackie," the University of Virginia student whose claims fueled the story, since the article was published in 2014. 

University administrator Nicole Eramo's attorneys say the article portrayed her as indifferent to Jackie's claims that she was raped by seven fraternity brothers, resulting in hundreds of emails and letters from angry readers referring to Ms. Eramo as a "wretched rape apologist" and a "disgusting, worthless piece of trash." Now, as Eramo's lawsuit goes to court, the trial will focus on whether Rolling Stone's editors and the author of the article, Sabrina Erdely, acted with "actual malice" and knew – or should have known – that the information they published on Eramo was false. 

"A lot of this case is already decided," said Lee Berlik, a Virginia libel attorney, to the Associated Press. "The big unknown really is how much damage did Ms. Eramo suffer to her reputation, what is that worth and I guess, most importantly, did Rolling Stone know what it was writing was untrue or should it have known?" 

The Rolling Stone article, first published in November 2014, was centered around the story of Jackie, a young woman who claimed to have been gang raped at a fraternity party in 2012. The article's portrayal of the "rape culture" on college campuses – and the university administrators who did little to seek justice – invoked outrage across the nation. 

But investigative reports from The Washington Post and other outlets that interviewed other sources, such as Jackie's friends and the man who was allegedly Jackie's date on the night of her rape, soon raised doubts about Jackie's story. The Charlottesville, Va. police department conducted its own investigation with more than 70 interviews and found no evidence to prove that the assault took place.

A report by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism described the article as "a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine's editors to reconsider publishing Jackie's narrative so prominently, if at all." 

In the upcoming defamation trial, Eramo's attorneys will argue that Ms. Erdely, the author of the article, purposely avoided information that may have ruined the story's narrative of how universities treat victims of sexual assault, and ignored warning signs that Jackie was not a credible source. Her attorneys said they plan to call Jackie as a witness, although it's unknown whether she will appear in person or in a video deposition. 

The outcome of the lawsuit, filed in May of 2015, could affect the way sexual assault is covered in the media, as Jessica Mendoza reported for The Christian Science Monitor last year:

The complaint once more draws attention to the challenges of reporting on sexual assault as well as the consequences of careless reporting – consequences that could result not only in damaged reputations and financial repercussions, but also in an impulse among journalists to avoid the subject, and in greater skepticism about the reality of sexual violence on college campuses. 

Eramo is not the first to file a lawsuit against Rolling Stone over the article. Earlier this year, a judge threw out one case brought by three fraternity members. A $25 million lawsuit filed by the University of Virginia's Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, where Jackie claimed to have been raped, is scheduled to go on trial in 2017. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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