Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdely Found Guilty of Defamation In University of Virginia Rape Story

unknownI have long been a critic of Rolling Stone magazine and its contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely (right) in its handling of the infamous campus rape story as well as the University of Virginia in not protecting the fraternity and its students in the controversy. (here and here and here). A jury has found that Erdely and Rolling Stone did defame Nicole Eramo, a U-Va. administrator who oversaw sexual violence cases at the time of the article’s publication. It is a victory for students and academics who are critical of the loss of due process rights for those accused of wrongdoing at universities, the subject of a prior column.

The Rolling Stone magazine retracted the University of Virginia rape story and agreed with a Columbia Journalism School review of major flaws in reporting and editing. However, as I previously criticized, the magazine refused to fire Sabrina Rubin Erdely despite her glaring failures as a journalist in researching and writing the story. For many of us, it was even more insulting to have Erdely testify how she was “A couple of other things struck me as odd. … I was getting a little hinky feeling.” This was due to the statement from the accusing student that she might have been mistaken: “I was just so startled. … Here she was saying in such a casual way, ‘Oh yeah, maybe he wasn’t in Phi Psi.'” Really? What be startled when you were acting without support beyond her account and ignored every other conflicting point or witness? Orderly’s eagerness to “expose” a rape culture at universities blinded her to such failures in writing the 9,000-word article titled “A Rape on Campus.”.

In addition to Columbia the shocking failures of Erdely to interview key witnesses, Sean Woods, the primary editor, was found as lacking in not doing enough to press Erdely to “close the gaps in her reporting.” Likewise, Will Dana, the magazine’s top editor, “might have looked more deeply into the story drafts he read, spotted the reporting gaps and insisted that they be fixed. He did not.” Notably, Woods has insisted he did push: “I did repeatedly ask, ‘Can we reach these people? Can we?’ And I was told no.”

The federal jury saw right through the defense and belated apologies. The 10 member jury concluded that Erdely was responsible for defamation even under the tougher “actual malice” standard of New York Times v. Sullivan, requiring knowing falsehood or reckless disregard of the truth.

Eramo sued over the magazine’s portrayal of her as callous and dismissive of rape reports on campus was untrue and unfair. Frankly, I was more eager to see the fraternity sue, but this will at least impose a cost on publications for such blind advocacy pieces.

Rolling Stone continues to make a good-faith argument while keeping Erdely on staff. It stated in the wake of the verdict that “In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again.”

The trial lasted 17 days and heard from 12 witnesses as well as the playing of 11 hours of video statements and more than 180 exhibits of evidence.

university_of_virginia_seal-svgDespite the widespread view that “Jackie” lied, her name continues to be withheld. In the meantime, there has been little discussion of the response of the University of Virginia in its immediate crackdown on all fraternities with little concern of the due process rights of that house or its members. University President Teresa Sullivan suspended all fraternities after demanding an investigation by the Charlottesville Police Department to request a criminal investigation. She later decided that “Phi Kappa Psi could be reinstated” after its members were painted as a group of rapists or enablers. Students could have potentially sued not just the victim but the school as we saw in the Duke lacrosse case. However, that did not materialize. The concern is that the University of Virginia has not made any substantial changes in guaranteeing greater due process rights for students or houses accused in such controversies. It has did not take any actions, or even investigated, “Jackie.” One can understand the desire not to discourage other victims of college assaults, a very serious problem for all universities and colleges. However, the lack of meaningful protections for the accused house and (by extension) students remains a concern.

The jury will consider damages and Eramo originally asked for $7.5 million.

30 thoughts on “Rolling Stone and Sabrina Erdely Found Guilty of Defamation In University of Virginia Rape Story”

  1. One of my pet peaves as a jurist is to characterize an adjudication in a civil matter in criminal terms. They were not found guilty but rather liable.

  2. How does it “feel” to be accused of rape when the truth be unknown?

    There is a song about this.


    Once upon a time you dressed so fine
    Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
    People call say ‘beware doll, you’re bound to fall’
    You thought they were all kidding you
    You used to laugh about
    Everybody that was hanging out
    Now you don’t talk so loud
    Now you don’t seem so proud
    About having to be scrounging your next meal

    How does it feel, how does it feel?
    To be without a home
    Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

    Ahh you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
    But you know you only used to get juiced in it
    Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street
    And now you’re gonna have to get used to it
    You say you never compromise
    With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
    He’s not selling any alibis
    As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
    And say do you want to make a deal?

    How does it feel, how does it feel?
    To be on your own, with no direction home
    A complete unknown, like a rolling stone

    Ah you never turned around to see the frowns
    On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
    You never understood that it ain’t no good
    You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
    You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
    Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
    Ain’t it hard when you discovered that
    He really wasn’t where it’s at
    After he took from you everything he could steal

    How does it feel, how does it feel?
    To have on your own, with no direction home
    Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

    Ahh princess on a steeple and all the pretty people
    They’re all drinking, thinking that they’ve got it made
    Exchanging all precious gifts
    But you better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it babe
    You used to be so amused
    At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
    Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse
    When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
    You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal

    How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
    To be on your own, with no direction home
    Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

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