Rolling Stone Argues University of Virginia Vouched for Discredited Rape Story

The publication responds to a $7.5 million lawsuit and shares a confidential letter it sent to an attorney for Dean Nicole Eramo.
Associated Press

On Thursday, Rolling Stone magazine responded in court to a $7.5 million lawsuit filed by University of Virginia associate dean Nicole Eramo over a now-retracted article titled "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA." For perhaps the first time, there's a suggestion that the University may have contributed to the faulty story.

Eramo sued in May after the media poked holes in Rolling Stone author Sabrina Erdely's account of a fraternity gang rape of a freshman identified as "Jackie." The plaintiff claims she was cast the "chief villain" of the story, doing nothing to help the victim and presiding over an academic institution that was "indifferent to rape on campus, and more concerned with protecting its reputation than with assisting victims of sexual assault."

Rolling Stone commissioned the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to look into the story and the investigation resulted in a report faulting the magazine for failing "basic, even routine journalistic practice."

That didn't stop Eramo from filing a 76-page complaint, which Rolling Stone responds to paragraph-by-paragraph on Thursday. Read here.

Perhaps most interesting — and a sign of how Rolling Stone will defend itself going forward — is the letter that the publication sent to Eramo's lawyers in February. This confidential letter has never been made public, but Eramo's lawsuit briefly referenced it. And so, Rolling Stone decides to detail how it first responded to Eramo "because Plaintiff has chosen to describe such communications in her Complaint, despite their inadmissibility."

The letter, attached as an exhibit (and seen in full below), makes the case that Rolling Stone had "good reason" to focus on the University of Virginia because it is "one of only 12 schools selected for a compliance review by the Department of Education's Office" and "has been the scene of well-known sexual and other violent assaults."

The attorney for Rolling Stone had written that the suggestion of Jackie's discredited story is "of serious and ongoing concern," but nevertheless rejects that Eramo has a viable libel claim. The letter rejects the premise "that because Jackie's account of her gang rape is somehow flawed or false, all references concerning Dean Eramo or UVA are likewise false."

But maybe most provocative is the letter's discussion of a woman named Emily Renda. Who's she?

Here's how the Columbia School of Journalism report opened:

"Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it's like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,' according to Erdely's notes of the conversation."

And now here's how the Rolling Stone letter to Eramo puts what happened:

"Ms. Erdely did not stumble on Jackie's story. She was directed to Jackie by Emily Renda, then working closely with Dean Eramo in the Student Affairs office the — same Emily Renda that included Jackie's account of being 'gang-raped' in her Congressional testimony about campus sexual-assault policies. There is no question that both the author and Rolling Stone had full faith in Jackie's credibility and the accuracy of its Article at the time of publication. In no small measure, Rolling Stone believed in the credibility of Jackie's story because it came with the imprimatur of UVA, and of Dean Eramo specifically."

The boldface is in the letter. The publication is essentially arguing that Eramo vouched for the credibility of its main source. And this is potentially important because the letter states "at bottom, any libel inquiry turns on what Rolling Stone knew and believed at the time of publication" and a footnote in the letter also says that Eramo is "unquestionably a public figure."

Rolling Stone is also asserting in its Answer yesterday that the statements published weren't made with "actual malice" — the standard if Eramo is deemed a public figure — besides challenging plaintiff's harm amid other typical defenses.

It's also worth noting Renda's reaction once the story came out and was retracted. Here's what she told The New York Times:

"Ms. Renda, who was interviewed for the Columbia report, offered another reason that she felt the Rolling Stone article was flawed: The magazine was drawn toward the most extreme story of a campus rape it could find. The more nuanced accounts, she suggested, seemed somehow 'not real enough to stand for rape culture. And that is part of the problem.' "

UPDATED: Libby Locke, counsel for Eramo, gave us this statement:

"Rolling Stone's claims that Dean Eramo was somehow the imprimatur for the story is categorically false.  Rolling Stone's sole basis for that conclusion (found in the Rolling Stone lawyer letter) is that 'Erdely was directed to Jackie by Emily Renda, then working closely with Dean Eramo in the Student Affairs office ….'  That is false.  Renda was a student advocate for sexual assault victims at the time she directed Erdely to Jackie.  She was not working closely with Dean Eramo on sexual assault cases, she did not — and has never — had access to University sexual assault case information in any capacity, and Dean Eramo did not participate in providing Renda or Rolling Stone facts to support this false and reckless story.  It is shameful that Rolling Stone is trying to shift the blame to Dean Eramo for their own malicious and reckless reporting."

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