Media & Communications Law

Judge tosses frat members' defamation suit against Rolling Stone over retracted rape article

  • Print.

A federal judge in Manhattan has tossed a lawsuit filed by three fraternity members at the University of Virginia who claim Rolling Stone magazine defamed them in a false article describing a gang rape of a woman called “Jackie.”

U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel dismissed the in a Tuesday ruling (PDF), report the Associated Press, the Hollywood Reporter’s THR, Esq. blog and Reuters.

The plaintiffs—Phi Kappa Psi fraternity members George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler—were not identified by name or physically described in the article, which has since been retracted. They claim the article had details that could lead others to conclude they were the attackers, even though the attackers were apparently invented by Jackie.

Elias said the article appeared to refer to him because his room was the first bedroom at the top of the first flight of stairs, and it was the only bedroom on that floor that didn’t require a keypad lock. The article had said only that the rape occurred in a room “up a staircase” at the fraternity house.

Fowler, the rush chairman at the fraternity, said the article appeared to refer to him because of quotes in the article inferring that rape was part of the initiation process. The quotes, purportedly made during the gang rape, were, “Don’t you want to be a brother?” and, “We all had to do it, so you do, too.”

Fowler also said the article appeared to be about him because he was an avid swimmer at the university pool, and the article claimed one of the attackers was a lifeguard at the pool. No member of the fraternity was a lifeguard at the pool.

Hadford said the article appeared to refer to him because he often rode his bike through campus. The article said Jackie had seen one of the attackers riding his bike on campus.

The plaintiffs also claimed they were defamed by comments by the author in a podcast interview about an apparent rape initiation ritual, and it was impossible to believe fraternity members didn’t know about the rape.

Castel said the individual plaintiffs did not establish that the details in the article were about and concerning them. He also found the author’s comments weren’t defamatory because they were phrased in a way that identified them as speculation and hypothesis.

The three plaintiffs graduated from the University of Virginia in 2013, and they claimed a quote in the article saying all the attackers had since graduated made them victims of small-group defamation. Thirty-one fraternity members had graduated in the relevant time period. Because the alleged statement didn’t apply to all 31 graduates, the plaintiffs weren’t defamed, Castel said.

Two other defamation lawsuits are pending against Rolling Stone. One was filed the fraternity chapter and the other by an associate dean who claimed she was portrayed as the “chief villain” in the article.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.