Rolling Stone magazine is denying many of the allegations made in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit that says it defamed a University of Virginia associate dean in its now-retracted story “A Rape on Campus.”
On Thursday night, attorneys for the magazine filed a response to the lawsuit from Nicole Eramo, who is seeking $7.85 million in compensatory and punitive damages from the magazine. In Eramo’s lawsuit, filed in May, she says the magazine and the story’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, “purposefully avoided the truth” in publishing the story, which paints Eramo in a negative light.
Eramo, an associate dean who handles claims of sexual misconduct at the university, said she was compassionate in her response to the allegations of a gang rape of a UVa first-year student, and that she immediately reported the account to local authorities.
She alleges that the story portrays her in a different light — as uncaring, unhelpful and callous to the woman’s claims, and that repercussions from the story have negatively affected her career and personal life.
Intended to expose a culture of sexual assault on college campuses, the article in question received intense scrutiny after it was published last fall. The central voice in the story came from a woman named “Jackie,” who said she was gang-raped by members of a UVa fraternity in 2012, and subsequently received little support from the university in trying to hold the men accountable.
The story, which stirred national outcry and led to the fall semester suspension of all Greek life at UVa, began to fall apart after media outlets found flaws in Jackie’s account — including that no member of the fraternity fit the description of her primary assailant, and that Jackie’s friends at the time could not verify, and indeed contradicted, key details in her account of night she was attacked.
Rolling Stone ultimately retracted the story, and an investigation by Charlottesville police concluded that the attack Jackie described could not be substantiated.
In their response to Eramo’s suit, attorneys for the magazine acknowledge flaws in Erdely’s reporting process, but maintain that errors she made are not libelous against Eramo. The response says the statements made in Eramo’s suit do not qualify as “defamatory” and that the magazine “did not publish any of the statements in suit with constitutional ‘actual malice’” or with “recklessness, negligence or any other applicable degree of fault.”
“[Eramo’s] claims fail because some or all of the statements in suit, to the extent they are capable of being proven true or false, are true or substantially true and, therefore, are absolutely protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” the response says.
The response also says Eramo does not have grounds for recovering punitive damages, and that she has “not suffered any actual harm or damages as a result of, or proximately caused by, the statements in suit.” Eramo’s attorneys had stated in her suit that after the magazine and Erdely’s “false claims” were published, she suffered “vicious and harmful attacks” from the public and she was prohibited from continuing to counsel students. Her suit further states that the article’s publication caused Eramo “extreme difficulty sleeping and eating” due to stress, and that it “affected Dean Eramo’s ongoing treatment for recurrence of breast cancer.”
A letter from one of Rolling Stone’s attorneys to Eramo’s attorney, dated Feb. 4 and filed with the response, further defends the magazine’s characterization of Eramo in the article, calling the depiction “nuanced, fair and very well-documented.”
“We do not agree with the premise of your letter or your client’s claim: that because Jackie’s account of her gang rape is somehow flawed or false, all references concerning Dean Eramo or UVa are likewise false,” the letter states. “That syllogism finds no support in the facts or the law.”
“No reader of the article could reasonably conclude that Dean Eramo ‘abused’ Jackie when she reported her assault,” the letter goes on to say.
Further, the letter states that Eramo’s involvement in Jackie’s case was actually a factor in the magazine’s decision to believe the student’s allegations.
“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 letter states.
Rolling Stone’s response asks for the case, which is in federal court in Charlottesville, to be dismissed. According to court documents, a trial date for the case has been set for July 18 of next year, and is expected to last two weeks.