University of Virginia

Magazine defamed Nicole Eramo ‘in a slew of media appearances’ as its story collapsed

A University of Virginia administrator filed a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone for its portrayal of her “as the chief villain” in the now-discredited December article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.”

The story depicted the brutal gang rape of a freshman known as “Jackie” at a fraternity house on campus in fall 2012, where she claims she was violently assaulted by seven fraternity brothers the night of a house party.

Though the magazine eventually issued a full retraction of the story, it was too late to address the reputational harm to Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo.

Eramo’s attorneys filed the suit Tuesday, stating the article’s depiction of her was “categorically false.”

The magazine claimed “both in the article and in a slew of media appearances” that Eramo “intentionally tried to coddle Jackie to persuade her not to report her rape; that she was indifferent to Jackie’s allegations; that she discouraged Jackie from sharing her story with others; that she ‘abuse[d]’ Jackie; that she did ‘nothing’ in response to Jackie’s allegations; that she claimed that UVA withholds rape statistics ‘because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school’; that she did not report Jackie’s alleged assault to the police; that she ‘brushed off’ Jackie; and that she actively sought to ‘suppress’ Jackie’s supposed gang rape,” the complaint states.

Eramo is seeking $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $3.5 million in punitive damages from Rolling Stone, its parent company Wenner Media and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who penned the story.

That request is based on claims that the magazine’s statements about her “were not the result of an innocent mistake,” and was done “with actual malice” that has caused serious damage to her reputation.

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‘Manipulated’ photo shows how Rolling Stone tried to vilify Eramo

“As a woman who has dedicated her life to assisting victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse, Dean Eramo saw herself tarred in the national press as the chief architect of a conspiracy to suppress Jackie’s assault in order to protect UVA’s reputation,” the suit said.

Eramo “received a wave of emails and letters from people across the country attacking her as among other things, ‘evil,’ a ‘wretched rape apologist,’ and a ‘disgusting, worthless piece of trash,’” according to the suit.

The complaint says in contrast to Rolling Stone’s portrayal, Eramo “has been widely lauded for her work as an advocate for victims of sexual assault at UVA and has earned a reputation as a tireless supporter of victims and of UVA students generally.”

The suit further claims that Rolling Stone went to great lengths to hire an illustrator to alter an image of Eramo in a piece of graphic art highlighted in the article.

“A simple comparison of the original photograph and Rolling Stone’s manipulated version of the image demonstrates the lengths Erdely and Rolling Stone were willing to go to portray Dean Eramo as a villain,” the suit states.

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Pursuing litigation was not Eramo’s first move in seeking to repair her reputation.

According to the complaint, the magazine initially declined to “take remedial measures to repair the harm” to Eramo’s reputation as she requested, on the grounds that the article was “well sourced and fact-checked.”

The magazine still would not apologize to Eramo even after the Charlottesville Police Department concluded it couldn’t confirm “to any substantive degree” the Rolling Stone account, nor after the article was labeled a “journalistic failure” by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

The suit also asserts the story follows a sensationalized pattern of reporting for Erdely, who has covered sexual assault throughout her career.

“[Jackie’s] narrative fits Erdely’s pattern and practice of using narrative journalism in which a shocking rape case is used as the vehicle to show that a given institution is indifferent to, or actively seeks to conceal, sexual assaults, just as she did in her 2011 and 2013 Rolling Stone articles ‘The Catholic Church’s Sex-Crime Files’ and ‘The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer’.”

This shows a pattern of behavior by Erdely, who “was intent on writing a narrative that used a single, shocking rape case to depict a pervasive rape culture on a college campus and an administration that supposedly sought to cover up sexual assaults,” the suit said.

College Fix reporter Julianne Stanford is a student at the University of Arizona.

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The Alliance Defending Freedom is fighting back against a campaign by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to get public universities to drop their basketball chaplains, who also serve as “character coaches,” calling them unconstitutional.

In a letter to the University of Kansas, one of the targeted schools, the alliance says the Establishment Clause gives universities “great leeway in accommodating the religious needs of their students.”

The group said federal courts “allow universities much greater latitude in accommodating religion” than elementary and high schools.

It noted that many other public entities – the military, prisons, hospitals, police, airports and even legislatures – have been approved for hiring chaplains or providing chapels by court rulings.

Because of their busy public schedules, student athletes don’t have time to attend regular religious services unless a chaplain travels with the team, the letter said.

The letters also went to the University of Louisville, University of Maryland, University of Virginia, University of Oklahoma and Wichita State University, all targeted by the foundation, the alliance said in a press release.

Read the Kansas letter.

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IMAGE: DeeBee/Flickr

 

Today’s Penn State Daily Collegian editorial amazingly wonders “what would legal action give the organization [UVA’s Phi Kappa Psi] that they don’t already have?”

That’s right, despite the fact that Rolling Stone’s story about how members of that fraternity gang-raped a student has been thoroughly discredited, not to mention officially retracted by the magazine, suing the publication for its misdeeds would be … “harmful,” says the DC editorial board.

While we understand the fraternity may have a right to legal action, we don’t support its decision to pursue a case.

What would legal action give the organization that they don’t already have? With all of the media covering of this case, it has become general knowledge the fraternity’s name has been cleared and the article has been retracted.

Legal action to clear Phi Kappa Psi’s name is unnecessary. The question must be asked: if the name has been cleared, what is it that the organization wants?

“Clearly our fraternity and its members have been defamed, but more importantly we fear this entire episode may prompt some victims to remain in the shadows, fearful to confront their attackers,” the Virginia Phi Kappa Psi chapter’s president, Stephen Scipione, said in the statement. “If Rolling Stone wants to play a real role in addressing this problem, it’s time to get serious.”

But this statement is contradictory.

If the fraternity is truly concerned about those who have been sexually assaulted remaining in the shadows, afraid to come forward, it wouldn’t continue to drag out this process.

The most important thing to come out of this failed journalism is the concept that sexual assault is a huge problem on college campuses, and false accusations are extremely unlikely. We cannot let this situation hurt and set back sexual assault reporting and investigating.

Let that last paragraph sink in for a moment. A long moment.

This whole preposterous exposition not only believes that Rolling Stone should pay no price for its actions and the fact the frat has been cleared is good enough for its members … but that  the most important result of this entire episode is that “sexual assault is a huge problem on college campuses, and false accusations are extremely unlikely.”

If you can get past that, perhaps even more astonishing is this line: “It [a lawsuit] will show anyone who may have something to say against a fraternity that they have the power, they can sue and they will essentially always win.”

Did the members of this editorial board actually follow this whole sordid tale? How the “victim’s” story was believed, reported on sans numerous journalistic standards, and then whose narrative was blasted across the media landscape virtually uncontested?

Where was the frat’s supposed omnipotence then?

Read the whole editorial.

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IMAGE: minusequalsplus/Flickr

You could certainly get away with such satire on The Daily Show, but apparently not a college newspaper.

The University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily wrote “an apology to our readers” for two stories that ran in its April Fool’s Day edition. These were the headlines:

“ABC officers tackle Native American student outside Bodo’s Bagels”

“Zeta Psi hosts ‘Rosa Parks’ party”

These refer, respectively, to the violent arrest of a black student at UVA by alcohol enforcement officers and more general stories about Greek life parties with themes like “Taco Tuesday” that are accused of cultural appropriation.

By Wednesday afternoon, the managing board was offering a “sincere apology” for its timely satire (since removed), promising to run a print apology, and even reaching out to “affected communities”:

The April Fools edition is meant to start a conversation and provide satirical commentary on important issues. The April Fools edition is not meant to come at the expense of our peers. We neglected to foresee that these pieces would come across as the latter, and for that, we regret their publication. …

We are embarrassed that our empathy for these immensely serious issues [in the black student’s arrest] was undermined by this piece. We had no intentions of victimizing another underrepresented community in the process.

We also apologize for the article satirizing themed fraternity parties. Our intention was not to perpetuate stereotypes, but to highlight the offensive nature of these themed parties in the past. Again, our readers were hurt by this piece, and that makes its publication inexcusable.

Since these pieces have been removed from the Cavalier website, who knows how offensive they might have been, but the use of current events in satire isn’t exactly new and controversial – it’s what The Onion does every day, and for the most part, very well.

While perhaps not gut busters, I have a hard time believing these stories were really that offensive – there’s no indication from the managing board how many people complained or who they were. Some people simply believe that some subjects don’t deserve to be satirized, even if the satire has noble intentions.

Or maybe this apology is an elaborate April Fools’ gag. Which would be pretty funny.

Read the apology.

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Can’t confirm the Rolling Stone account ‘to any substantive degree’

The Charlottesville Police Department is suspending its investigation into an alleged gruesome sexual assault in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia, as detailed in an article published in Rolling Stone last December, officials said Monday.

The article shocked readers as it graphically depicted the physical assault and violent gang rape of “Jackie,” a first-year student, by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity during a party at the beginning of the fall semester in 2012.

But soon after the story was published, holes began to appear in the details surrounding the assault.

Rolling Stone issued a retraction to the story a month later, citing “discrepancies in Jackie’s account,” exacerbated by a series of decisions not to fact check or verify Jackie’s claims about her alleged assailant.

The police department has confirmed the existence of those discrepancies from its investigation.

“Unfortunately, we’re not able to conclude to any substantive degree that an incident that is consistent with the facts contained in that article occurred at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house or any fraternity house for that matter,” Police Chief Timothy Longo said at a press conference.

Jackie stonewalled a detective seeking to investigate her allegations for seven months before coming to the police station in December and, again, refusing to answer questions or give a statement, the investigation said.

“Since that time, despite numerous attempts to gain her cooperation, ‘Jackie’ has provided no information whatsoever to investigators,” the investigation said.

Get the cops involved right away

Although law enforcement officials could not find any evidence to corroborate Jackie’s account of the alleged assault in Rolling Stone, Longo said the investigation is “not closed by any stretch of the imagination.

“It is suspended until we are able to gather more information or such time where someone comes forward and provides us with more information.”

Longo said that the findings of the investigation do not rule out the possibility that Jackie was still assaulted that night.

“Now I want to be clear about something, that doesn’t mean that something terrible did not happen to Jackie on the evening of September 28, 2012, we’re just not able to gather sufficient facts to conclude what that something is,” Longo said.

Longo stressed the importance of involving law enforcement officials as soon as possible after a sexual assault occurs to prevent a similar situation from occurring again.

“Having police involvement at the very early stages of these investigations is extremely, extremely important and as I said months ago, and I will repeat now – every second of every minute, of every hour, of every day, of week, of every month, of every year – we lose evidence,” Longo said.

“We lose testimonial evidence, we lose physical evidence, we lose forensic evidence. We lose the evidence that is important to get to the truth behind these cases so that justice can prevail.”

School that took 11 months to tell police helped ‘a student in need’

teresasullivan.AmericanCouncilonEducation.flickrUniversity President Teresa Sullivan ignored the ostensible purpose of the police announcement and instead claimed vindication for the school’s handling of Jackie’s allegations.

“The investigation confirms what federal privacy law prohibited the University from sharing last fall: that the University provided support and care to a student in need, including assistance in reporting potential criminal conduct to law enforcement,” Sullivan said in a statement after the police announcement.

It took 11 months after Jackie reported her allegations to the school before the police “became aware” of them, the investigation found.

Sullivan said that the university will continue working with the police department to combat on-campus sexual assault.

“There is important work ahead as the University continues to implement substantive reforms to improve its culture, prevent violence and respond to incidents of violence when they occur,” Sullivan said.

Future victims who report: ‘The boy who cried wolf’

The findings may prove to be an obstacle to sexual assault prevention and adjudication in the future, according to John Banzhaf, a public interest law professor at George Washington University.

“This Rolling Stone debacle, coupled with the recent memory of phony allegations of rape [by lacrosse players] at Duke University, and a Justice Department study showing that widely cited estimates of the rate of rapes and other sexual assaults on college campuses has been grossly exaggerated, may blunt so-far successful efforts by the federal government and anti-rape groups to force colleges to not only crack down but to also convict more male students,” Banzhaf said in a statement given to The College Fix.

Banzhaf said “almost two dozen courts” have found in favor of accused males who sued their universities to obtain justice.

The Charlottesville police findings could prove detrimental to victims of sexual assault who are seeking justice, if they come to be seen as “the boy who cried wolf,” Banzhaf added.

Director Rebecca Weybright of the Sexual Assault Resource Agency of Charlottesville echoed Banzhaf’s worry over the effect the investigation’s conclusion could have on assault victims.

NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

“Why would somebody want to put themselves to be potentially subjected to what, the amount of questioning and I’m sure the criticism?” Weybright said in an interview with NBC 29.

Further, Weybright was concerned Jackie’s discredited account could set a dangerous precedent.

“My first thought was ‘oh my gosh this is just going to make more people not believe survivors,’ and that’s pretty devastating,” Weybright said.

The findings seem unlikely to slow the national narrative of widespread sexual assault on campus.

The Huffington Post reported earlier this month that the distributor for The Hunting Ground, a new documentary that purports to show a rape-culture crisis in higher education, has received more than 1,000 invitations to screen the film on college campuses.

College Fix reporter Julianne Stanford is a student at the University of Arizona.

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IMAGES: Cavalier Daily/YouTube, American Council on Education/Flickr

National sorority leaders sent a letter to all sixteen University of Virginia sorority chapters back on January 20, urging them “not to participate in activities related to ‘men’s bid night’ [this] Saturday and to instead plan alternative ‘sisterhood events …'”

This did not sit well with many on campus, however.

Two days ago, the university’s student council passed a resolution saying the letter “perpetuates the fundamental power dynamics underlying the issue by forbidding sorority women to exercise their agency.” (University-speak translation: “It perpetuates the oppressive patriarchy!” Normal translation: “Hey! We’re legal adults! We can make our own decisions!”)

NBC News reports:

The council’s chairman, Abraham Axler, who provided a copy of the letter to NBC News, said the response “is not about people fighting for the right to party. It is a response to what we feel is an infringement on the values of the students of UVA, particularly the value of self-governance.”

… the National Panhellenic Conference had a standing policy saying members would not participate in men’s recruitment events. That point was also made by Linda Kahangi, the national executive director of the Alpha Phi sorority, in an emailed statement to NBC News. “This has everything to do with reminding UVA chapters of existing policy and nothing to do with a lack of confidence in smart, strong, women who are members of the Alpha Phi chapter at UVA,” she said.

UVA spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn said the university was not involved in the sororities’ request. “With regard to activities scheduled for this weekend, we have confidence in our students’ ability to use good judgment, be mindful of one another’s safety, and adhere to the new safety practices developed by them and outlined in the recently revised Fraternal Organization Agreements,” he said.

Lest ye despair that the oft-cited “one in five women are sexually assaulted in college” figure will be forgotten along with the idea behind the UVA Rolling Stone “rape” story, here’s Daillen Culver, a UVA senior who signed a Change.org petition against the national sororities’ letter:

“I would just like to turn the focus back to people and to the rape culture and how that is perpetuated on college campuses,” she added. “And not only just on college campuses, but in society as a whole … I think we need to address that before we try and forbid women from going out to a party on a Saturday night. It’s just not a sustainable solution.”

Some members of UVA sororities told the Washington Post that they were visited by representatives from their respective national chapters and threatened with suspensions or fines if they attended any frat “bid night” parties.

Read the full article.

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