The University of Virginia’s Nicole Eramo sued Rolling Stone on Tuesday for nearly $8 million, saying the magazine depicted her as the “chief villain” in its debunked gang rape expose.
Filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court, the 77-page suit claims the story authored by Sabrina Rubin Erdely falsely portrayed Eramo, UVa’s associate dean of students, as indifferent to the plight of “Jackie,” a student who claimed she’d been raped by seven men at a fraternity house.
“I am filing this defamation lawsuit to set the record straight and to hold the magazine and the author of the article accountable for their actions in a way they have refused to do themselves,” Eramo said in a statement.
Eramo is suing for $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.
Although the story rapidly crumbled apart and has been widely criticized, no one at the magazine has been disciplined or fired. The magazine and Erdely have issued apologies.
Titled “A Rape on Campus,” the 9,000-word piece sent shockwaves across Grounds with its Nov. 19 release, claiming, among other things, that Eramo “coddled Jackie into inaction” rather than file formal complaints or turn to authorities, according to the lawsuit.
In fact, the suit says, Eramo persuaded Jackie to speak with authorities, twice arranging meetings between her and university and Charlottesville police. That claim is substantiated by an investigative report released earlier this year by city police, who launched a probe into Jackie’s account at UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan’s request following the story’s online release.
Jackie never filed a formal complaint with either the school or police, the suit says, “not because Dean Eramo tried to suppress Jackie’s allegations or persuade her to remain silent — but because Jackie adamantly refused to cooperate with law enforcement or name her alleged attackers.”
Eramo’s suit follows a Columbia Graduate School of Journalism review of Rolling Stone’s work on the story that said the magazine failed at every turn, hinging its entire account on Jackie while failing to corroborate any of the details. The city police investigation found no evidence to substantiate any of Jackie’s account.
Rolling Stone Publisher Jann S. Wenner declined to comment.
“The University of Virginia previously stated that the Rolling Stone article is an example of irresponsible journalism, which has damaged the reputation of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia,” a university statement said. “Dean Eramo is well within her rights to pursue this private legal action.”
Alexandria attorneys Tom Clare and Libby Locke are representing Eramo.
UVa is among dozens of schools nationwide being investigated by the feds for its handling of sexual assault cases. The story described the university administration as being more concerned about the school’s image than victims.
It opened with a graphic account of Jackie being lured to a Phi Kappa Psi party, where, the story said, she later was hurled through a glass table and attacked by seven men.
Phi Psi officials have said they also are considering legal action.
At one point, the story said, Jackie recounted trying to obtain sexual assault statistics, but Eramo told her they weren’t publicized because “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.” Eramo claims in the suit that the quote was fabricated.
The piece was accompanied by a photo illustration of Eramo smiling and offering a thumbs-up as she sits in her office counseling a distraught woman.
A benign photograph of Eramo taken by The Cavalier Daily, the UVa school newspaper, was used to craft the artwork, lifting her from a mundane classroom setting in the original photo and placing her in the illustration “sneering while a sexual assault victim sits crying in front of her,” according to the suit. The illustration depicts protesters seen through a window behind Eramo toting signs, one reading “she’s broken” with the words “he’s OK” highlighted.
The school paper was not advised that its photo would be altered.
Jackie’s claims, the suit says, could have been refuted simply by checking facts and talking to her friends, who also were described in the story as indifferent to her suffering.
Eramo’s legal team argues that Erdely and the magazine’s editorial staff acted with “actual malice” because they “actively avoided” sources who could have undermined Jackie’s account.
Further, the suit says, both Jackie and Emily Renda, a student who put Erdely in touch with Jackie, offered information contradicting Erdely’s claims about Eramo in advance. The suit also says Erdely stuck with the story even after Jackie tried to back out before publication.
“Erdely and Rolling Stone recklessly disregarded Jackie’s repudiation of the defamatory statements they planned to make regarding Dean Eramo,” reads the complaint.
Reached by phone in her Alexandria office Tuesday afternoon, Locke said she could not talk about the contact she has had with Jackie, who hired an attorney in December.
Eramo’s case is strong and likely will end in a settlement, said William G. Oglesby, an attorney and former television journalist who now teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
As a public official, Eramo faces a higher burden of proof, he said — “actual malice,” which shows a defendant either knew information was false or had “reckless disregard for the truth.”
The way Erdely and Rolling Stone avoided checking into claims that could have destroyed the narrative of Jackie’s story could be considered reckless disregard, Oglesby said.
“Anyone in that position would take certain basic steps to corroborate what they heard when what they heard was this inflammatory,” Oglesby said. “There were possible holes they didn’t check them.”
A good example of this was Erdely’s failure to ask Jackie to waive her student privacy rights so that the writer could investigate records and speak with officials about her.
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act bars teachers and administrators from discussing students’ private information — everything from grades to disciplinary and mental health records — with a third party without the student’s permission. UVa administrators argued that FERPA kept them from discussing Jackie’s case with Erdely.
Erdely never asked Jackie about waiving her FERPA rights.
“The court may find a compelling case for reckless disregard,” Oglesby said, “if it finds that — as the plaintiff alleges — taking the simplest of care to corroborate the reporter’s story (such as seeking a FERPA exception) would have revealed the inherent problems with the original story.”