The retracted Rolling Stone story, which included a now-debunked account of a gang rape, heightened scrutiny of campus sexual assaults, but it also damaged the reputations of three University of Virginia graduates who were members of the fraternity included in the story, according to a lawsuit against the magazine.
A lawyer for the men said they suffered "vicious and hurtful attacks" because of inaccuracies in the November 2014 article, which was written by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and described a gang-rape that allegedly took place at a fraternity party. The account has since been discredited.
The three men, George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford, and Ross Fowler, filed a lawsuit against the publication and the article's author Wednesday in US District Court in New York, court records show. They sued on three counts, including defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The suit requests restitution of at least $75,000 for each count.
In the lawsuit, the three 2013 graduates said the article "created a simple and direct way to match the alleged attackers" from the alleged gang rape to them based on details provided in the story.
For example, Mr. Elias’s room at the fraternity house was "the mostly likely scene of the alleged crime" based on the details in the Rolling Stone article.
"Upon release of the article, family friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and reporters easily matched [Elias] as one of the alleged attackers and, among other things, interrogated him, humiliated him, and scolded him," the lawsuit said, according to the Associated Press. It also said that Hadford and Fowler "suffered similar attacks."
In the lawsuit, their lawyer said each of their identities was listed online by anonymous users when the article first came out and each of their "names will forever be associated with the alleged gang rape."
The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson noted in May that the fraternity's decision to sue may come with repercussions - although it is unclear if they still apply in this case as the three students have filed suit separate from their fraternity.
At a time when growing numbers of fraternities find themselves banned from campuses after revelations of racist or sexist behavior, a libel trial could potentially reveal unflattering details about the fraternity’s history and culture.
Suing Rolling Stone “could backfire on you,” Rodney Smolla, a University of Georgia law professor, told the National Law Journal. “If you’ve got things you’re not proud of that are there, then do not bring the case because all of that will come out and it will cause you more damage than good.”
Acknowledgement by police that they have no evidence to prove that Jackie’s story is true certainly adds strength to any libel claim the fraternity may make against Rolling Stone.
Kathryn Brenner, a spokeswoman for Wenner Media, Rolling Stone’s publisher, said the magazine declined to comment on the lawsuit.
A damning report published by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism earlier this year said Rolling Stone failed at the reporting and editing process. Despite this, no one at Rolling Stone was fired.
However, on Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Will Dana, Rolling Stone's managing editor will leave the magazine next month after 19 years at the company.
When the Associated Press asked whether Mr. Dana's departure was linked to the retracted story, a spokeswoman for the magazine's publisher, Jann Wenner, said that "many factors go into a decision like this.”
Although the article created controversy, its original premise created awareness about a systemic problem: one in five women in college are sexually assaulted.
It also motivated university 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.
However, as the Monitor's Mr. Jonsson points out, "the subsequent debunking of Jackie's claims may have equally significant impacts, critics say, by potentially undermining the credence of rape victims more broadly."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.