Rolling Stone Liable for Defamation in “A Rape on Campus” Lawsuit

by Kitty Testa

Two years ago Rolling Stone published a story about a 2012 gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house.  The author, Sabrina Erdely, relied almost exclusively on the story’s victim, Jacqueline “Jackie” Coakley, as her main source.

Coakley
Jacqueline Coakley

A Rape on Campus detailed a horrifying gang rape at a UVA fraternity house.

The story received massive attention, and also the scrutiny that comes with such attention.  Other journalists investigating the story proved it to be a fabrication, and the real victims ultimately were the reporter, the frat members, Rolling Stone, and UVA Dean Nicole Eramo, who was portrayed in the article as callous and indifferent to “Jackie’s” rape claims.

Eramo fought back against the claims, filing a defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone after the publication retracted the story in April, 2015.

The trial went before a 10-member federal court jury on October 17. During the course ofthe trial, the jury was presented with over 180 exhibits of evidence, 12 witnesses and video testimony from “Jackie.” At question was whether the author approached her treatment of Eramo with malice, which Rolling Stone denied.

Eramo
Former UVA Dean Nicole Eramo

On November 4, the jury reached a verdict in favor of Eramo.  The suit originally asked for $7.5 million in damages, but now that she has prevailed in court, Eramo can ask for a different sum.

Coakley deceived Erdely, and in pursuing the story, Erdely ignored key facts that questioned the factual basis of “Jackie’s” story.

One of Eramo’s attorneys, Tom Clare, told the Washington Post, “Once they decided what the story was going to be about, it didn’t matter what the facts were.”

Erdely lost her job at Rolling Stone, and her professional reputation is ruined.

Erdely
Sabrina Erdely

Whether Erdely was influenced by the ideal of believing all women who claim to be victims of sexual assault—regardless of evidence—is unknown. The irony is that “Jackie” and Erdely have undermined the voices of true victims, and have created a climate in which they are less likely to be believed.

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