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Rolling Stone was hit Monday with a defamation lawsuit for over $25 million from the University of Virginia fraternity where the magazine reported a young woman was raped in a story later discredited.
In the lawsuit complaint, obtained by the Washington Post, the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi alleges reputational damage (and death threats and harassment against members) due to the November 2014 Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who is named a defendant with Rolling Stone and publishers Wenner Media and Straight Arrow.
The story told of a University of Virginia freshman named “Jackie” who purportedly went to a “date function” at Phi Kappa Psi, where seven men brutally raped her in a bedroom.
Details quickly emerged challenging the accuracy of the story, leading the publication to commission a review from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that found the publication had failed to conduct “basic, even routine journalistic practice” in reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking” to confirm Jackie’s story. Rolling Stone officially retracted the story in April, and managing editor Will Dana later left the publication.
The lawsuit Monday is not the first complaint filed over the story: UVA associate dean Nicole Eramo sued in May for $7.5 million, contending she was made the “chief villain” of the story for contact with Jackie she claims never happened; and UVA graduates and former Phi Kappa Psi members George Elias, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler sued in July.
But the lawsuit from the fraternity specifically contests the ways the story indicates the complicity of the fraternity organization, not just the members, in the alleged rape.
The complaint states wording like “Phi Kappa Psi gang-rape victims” and “gang-rape allegations against a fraternity” and quotes from the alleged rapists including “Don’t you want to be a brother?” falsely implicate the organization in the rape, as did the story’s illustration of the Phi Kappa Psi house and banner behind a woman covered in bloody handprints.
“In characterizing Jackie’s gang-rape as a Phi Kappa Psi initiation ritual, the Article associated the fraternity brand and reputation even more closely with gang-rape. The concept of gang-rape as initiation inexorably leads the reader to conclude that being a brother at Phi Kappa Psi means being a gang-rapist,” continues the complaint.
Rolling Stone’s failure to contact the men in the story was “a textbook example of publication with actual malice,” states the complaint, which adds the allegations are false: “Jackie was not gang-raped, or sexually assaulted by anyone in any manner at Phi Kappa Psi, nor was she assaulted by any Phi Kappa Psi member at any other time or place.”
The fraternity further claims Erdely contacted the president, Stephen Scipione, for comment, but told him nearly nothing about the allegations in the story.
“When Mr. Scipione replied that the scant information Erdely supplied made it impossible for him to comment, Erdely resolved again not to provide that information to him. Erdely knew that she could recast Mr. Scipione’s inability to comment as the fraternity closing ranks,” states the complaint.
The backlash against the fraternity upon the story’s publication was intense, continues the complaint. Vandals spray-painted “UVA Center for Rape Studies” and “Suspend Us!” on the Phi Kappa Psi house and broke windows, protestors rallied around the house and harassed the members and members’ job interviews and other professional interactions have been colored by the story, according to the complaint, including an employer asking one, “Oh, were you in the fraternity that raped girls?”
The complaint notes no organization can claim emotional damage from defamation, but organizations can obtain recovery for damage to their reputation the same way an individual could.
The complaint adds the members individually have received threats and insults that speak to the reputational damage. “Hope you get raped and tortured,” one reader allegedly wrote in an email to Scipione.
“Give me the names of the rapists. I will kill them. Not joking, I will straight up kill them. And while I’m at it, I’ll kill their families for failing to raise them,” wrote another in a Facebook comment, according to the complaint.
The fraternity wants $25 million in damages (plus $350,000 in punitive damages per defendant) on four counts of defamation, including press releases from Rolling Stone on the story’s accuracy and an interview with Erdely on Michael Smerconish’s SiriusXM show.
Rolling Stone declined to comment.
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