Media & Communications Law

UVa official sues Rolling Stone, says she was 'chief villain' in retracted rape article

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Saying that a now-discredited Rolling Stone article about a claimed 2012 gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity portrayed her as the “chief villain,” an associate dean has filed a defamation suit against the magazine.

Plaintiff Nicole Eramo is asking for over $7.5 million in damages from the magazine, parent company Wenner Media and journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the article in November 2014, reports the Washington Post (reg. req.). It was subsequently retracted by the magazine following an investigation headed by the dean of Columbia University’s journalism school.

The complaint was filed Tuesday in circuit court in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the school is located, and also seeks punitive damages of $350,000 and attorney’s fees.

In addition to the portrayal of Eramo in the Rolling Stone article itself, the suit points to media statements made by the defendants after the article was published as also allegedly defamatory. It contends that the defendants acted with actual malice by not attempting to verify purported factual information by speaking to those accused of wrongdoing or otherwise checking out the claims of the anonymous young woman known as “Jackie” at the center of the story.

Also at issue is a photo illustration in the Rolling Stone article that Eramo says distorts a routine news photo taken for other purposes to falsely portray her as wild-eyed and uncaring about rape victims. An article on the Daily Intelligencer page of New York magazine shows the original and published versions of the photo.

As the university’s chief administrator overseeing sexual assault complaints, Eramo says the article’s damaged her reputation and caused her emotional distress through incorrect claims that she was disdainful of Jackie’s gang-rape complaint; “did nothing in response;” and sought to suppress the complaint to protect the reputation of the university.

The Washington Post article doesn’t include any comment from the defendants. However, the Associated Press reports that Rolling Stone declined to discuss the suit.

Related coverage: “Police suspend investigation into rape claim described in Rolling Stone; magazine plans follow-up”

Columbia Journalism Review: “Rolling Stone’s investigation: ‘A failure that was avoidable’”

Washington Post: “U-Va. Associate Dean Nicole Eramo blasts Rolling Stone in open letter”

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