Rolling Stone Headed to Trial Over Campus Rape Story

The court has found that UVA dean Nicole Eramo is a limited-purpose public figure and will face a higher bar in proving the story defamed her.
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A jury will decide whether Rolling Stone defamed the University of Virginia's dean in its since-retracted article about a gang rape at a campus fraternity, after a federal judge on Thursday denied summary judgment on key issues in the lawsuit.

Nicole Eramo sued Rolling Stone in May 2015, claiming the story cast her as the chief villain and painted the school as one that is indifferent to rape on its campus.

During the time of the alleged incident, Eramo was in charge of performing intake of sexual assault complaints, providing support to victims and participating in panels and conferences related to the issue. She claims the November 2014 article destroyed her reputation as a supporter of sexual assault victims and triggered hundreds of threatening messages from the public. 

Within weeks of publication, Rolling Stone issued an editor's note acknowledging that there were discrepancies in the story "Jackie" told reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdley — who admittedly did not attempt to contact any of the men Jackie claimed raped her or even confirm their full names.

Chief U.S. District Judge Glen E. Conrad on Thursday concluded that Eramo is a limited-purpose public figure, which means she will have to prove the magazine acted with actual malice to prevail on her defamation claims. 

“The volume of her media appearances, and in some instances their depth, supports the conclusion that Eramo attempted to influence the outcome of the controversy,” writes Conrad. "[Th]e court's analysis of the five requirements for limited-public figure status, and its overall review of the record, lead to the conclusion that defendants have met their burden of establishing that, at the time of publication, Eramo warranted the limited-purpose public figure designation."

The judge explains that Eramo will have to prove the magazine "entertained serious doubts as to the truth" of its story. Rolling Stone had moved for summary judgment on the issue of actual malice, but Conrad dismissed it Thursday.

The judge also tossed the magazine's argument that the statements in the article concerning Eramo were protected opinion and not actionable under Virginia law.

"After reviewing the Article, the court believes that it is not 'clear to all reasonable listeners' that all twelve statements targeted by the plaintiff are 'exaggerated rhetoric' or 'the opinion of the author," writes Conrad. "On the contrary, Erdely has written at least five other similarly-styled, solemn and fact-intensive articles about rape. These circumstances support the notion that 'A Rape on Campus' was largely a report of a factual occurrence."

Conrad stopped short of answering whether or not Eramo was defamed, finding that question should be left to a jury. (Read his full opinion below.)

Earlier this summer, the magazine beat a different lawsuit from a handful of Phi Kappa Psi brothers who also claimed to be defamed in the story. There, a New York federal judge found the "the article's details about the attackers are too vague and remote from the plaintiffs' circumstances to be 'of and concerning' them."