Rolling Stone is con­victed of li­bel in UVA rape story

Ar­ti­cle de­famed univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tor, jury finds

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE - By Alanna Durkin Richer

RICH­MOND, VA. — Rolling Stone magazine, its pub­lisher and a re­porter de­famed a Univer­sity of Vir­ginia ad­min­is­tra­tor who sued them for $7.5 mil­lion over a dis­cred­ited story about a gang rape at a fra­ter­nity house, a fed­eral jury said Fri­day.

The 10-mem­ber jury in Char­lottesville sided with ad­min­is­tra­tor Ni­cole Eramo, who claimed the ar­ti­cle por­trayed her as a vil­lain. Ju­rors found that jour­nal­ist Sab­rina Ru­bin Erdely was re­spon­si­ble for li­bel, with ac­tual mal­ice, and that Rolling Stone and its pub­lisher were also re­spon­si­ble for de­fam­ing Eramo.

Eramo claimed the November 2014 ar­ti­cle falsely said she dis­cour­aged the woman iden­ti­fied only as Jackie from re­port­ing the in­ci­dent to po­lice. A po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion found no ev­i­dence to back up Jackie’s claims about be­ing raped.

Rolling Stone’s at­tor­neys con­tended dur­ing the trial that Jackie ap­peared to be an en­tirely cred­i­ble source and that the re­porter fell vic­tim to an elab­o­rate ruse. The magazine stood by its crit­i­cism of the univer­sity’s han­dling of sex­ual as­sault cases de­spite prob­lems with Jackie’s story.

In a state­ment Fri­day, the magazine apol­o­gized to Eramo and oth­ers af­fected by the ar­ti­cle.

“It is our deep hope that our fail­ings do not de­flect from the per­va­sive is­sues dis­cussed in the piece, and that re­port­ing on sex­ual as­sault cases ul­ti­mately re­sults in cam­pus poli­cies that bet­ter pro­tect our stu­dents,” the magazine said.

Libby Locke, an at­tor­ney for Eramo, said in an email, “The jury’s ver­dict is a com­plete vin­di­ca­tion of Ni­cole Eramo, and a com­plete re­pu­di­a­tion of Rolling Stone’s and Ms. Erdely’s false and defam­a­tory ar­ti­cle.”

Be­cause the judge de­ter­mined that Eramo was a pub­lic fig­ure, she had to prove that Rolling Stone made state­ments with “ac­tual mal­ice,” mean­ing it knew that what it was writ­ing about her was false or en­ter­tained se­ri­ous doubts as to whether it might be true.

The jury found that Erdely acted with ac­tual mal­ice on six claims: two state­ments in the ar­ti­cle and four state­ments to me­dia out­lets af­ter the story was pub­lished. In one in­stance, Erdely wrote in the story that Eramo had a “non­re­ac­tion” when she heard from Jackie that two other women were also gang-raped at the same fra­ter­nity at the univer­sity.

Ju­rors also found that the de­ci­sion by Rolling Stone and Wen­ner Me­dia, the magazine’s pub­lisher, to post the story on Dec. 5, 2014 — with an ed­i­tor’s note ac­knowl­edg­ing prob­lems with Jackie’s ac­count — counted as “re­pub­lish­ing” the de­bunked story. Ju­rors con­cluded that the pub­lisher and magazine didn’t act with ac­tual mal­ice when the story was orig­i­nally pub­lished but did when it was re­pub­lished.

The magazine did not of­fi­cially re­tract the story and re­move it from its web­site un­til the fol­low­ing April.

Ju­rors will de­cide later how much to award Eramo in dam­ages. Rolling Stone has agreed to cover Erdely’s le­gal costs and any dam­ages levied against her.

Wash­ing­ton-based me­dia and First Amend­ment at­tor­ney Bruce W. San­ford said the ver­dict didn’t sur­prise him.

“At the heart of ev­ery li­bel case is the jour­nal­ism, and this was fun­da­men­tally flawed jour­nal­ism,” San­ford said. He said the two sides could reach a set­tle­ment be­fore the case goes to the dam­ages phase, or even af­ter that phase con­cludes.

In ar­gu­ing that Erdely acted with ac­tual mal­ice, Eramo’s at­tor­neys said Erdely came into the story with a pre­con­ceived sto­ry­line about in­sti­tu­tional in­dif­fer­ence to sex­ual as­sault and in­ten­tion­ally dis­re­garded state­ments and facts about Eramo that didn’t fit that nar­ra­tive. They claimed Erdely ig­nored red flags about Jackie’s cred­i­bil­ity, in­clud­ing the chang­ing ac­count of Jackie’s rape and her re­fusal to let Erdely talk to peo­ple who could cor­rob­o­rate her story.

Rolling Stone’s at­tor­neys ac­knowl­edged that Erdely and her edi­tors made se­ri­ous re­port­ing mis­takes, but said there was no ev­i­dence the re­porter ever had se­ri­ous doubts about Jackie’s cred­i­bil­ity.

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