Rolling Stone Gets One Victory as Defamation Trial Continues

A judge rules in the publication's favor that Nicole Eramo wasn't defamed by implications in the infamous campus rape story.
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The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus

A Virginia federal judge has foreclosed one theory on how Rolling Stone allegedly defamed the University of Virginia's former associate dean Nicole Eramo in its since-retracted article about a gang rape at a campus fraternity. On Monday, U.S. District Court judge Glen Conrad granted the magazine's motion for judgment as a matter of law as to the allegations that Eramo was defamed by implication.

Eramo contends that she was cast as the "chief villain" in the infamous story concerning a freshman identified as "Jackie." Besides recounting a supposed sexual assault, the article addressed UVA's sexual assault policies and whether there was a proper investigation. Eramo will be asking a jury to interpret the article's statements as meaning the dean "silenced" Jackie or "discouraged" her from reporting her gang rape to the police.

On Friday, Eramo rested her case after more than a week's worth of testimony from various witnesses.

Afterwards, the two sides addressed the allegations of defamation by implication, with Eramo's lawyers aiming to clarify that the Rolling Stone article insinuated that she acted as a false friend to Jackie, pretending to be on her side while at the same time discouraging her from pursuing a formal complaint.

Although Conrad rules that Eramo met pleading requirements here, the judge says that allowing the plaintiff to amend her claim would cause prejudice by not allowing Rolling Stone sufficient time to develop their defense.

Furthermore, the evidence presented wasn't sufficient to support these implication claims.

In response to the publication's motion, the judge writes, "Having heard the evidence, the court believes that no reasonable juror could find that 'A Rape on Campus,' read as a whole and in context of the contemporaneous promotional material, reasonably implies that Eramo was a false friend ... ."

According to news reports, the judge however rejected Rolling Stone's bid to find as a matter of law that Eramo hadn't proven actual malice in the way it reported the story. The question will be put to a jury along with whether article statements were of and concerning plaintiff, constituted materially false statements of fact and damaged plaintiff's reputation.

Rolling Stone publisher and co-founder Jann Wenner also made an appearance at trial. Just before Eramo rested her case, Wenner's video deposition was shown to the trial.

“We did everything reasonable and appropriate, up to the highest standards of journalistic check on this thing,” Wenner said in the deposition. “The one thing we didn’t do that we could have done is confront Jackie’s so-called [rapists].”

Although Wenner said he was pretty certain he approved an editor's note in December 2014 that retracted the story that had run weeks earlier, he wouldn't stand by the retraction. 

"We were not retracting the fundamentals to that story," he said, according to local news reports.

Rolling Stone will now have its opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence and testimony before the jury begins its deliberations.

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