“A Rape on Campus” = $25 million Defamation Lawsuit for Rolling Stone | Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law

On November 19, 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published an article titled “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” that detailed the story of a University of Virginia freshmen named “Jackie,” who endured a horrific gang-rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house during a date function. It was alleged in the story that the gang-rape was part of a hazing ritual for potential members of the fraternity. The story went viral attracting more than 2.7 million views. However, soon after publication, details emerged that the article was largely unsupported by evidence and, in fact, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, in a commissioned report, dubbed the story a “journalistic failure,” which “encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.” Additionally, the Charlottesville, Va., police department concluded, after a four-month investigation, that, “There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.” Rolling Stone officially retracted the story in April and the magazine’s editor later resigned.

On November 9, 2015, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity chapter at the University of Virginia filed a $25 million defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone alleging damage to the reputations of the fraternity chapter and its student and alumni members. According to the Phi Kappa Psi chapter, “[t]he article also subjected the student members and their families to danger and immense stress while jeopardizing the future existence of the chapter.” This lawsuit joins the lawsuits of UVA Associate Dean Nicole Eramo, who filed a $7.5 million lawsuit in May asserting she was made out to be the “chief villain” of the story, and three UVA Phi Kappa Psi fraternity members, who filed a lawsuit in July claiming the article had a “devastating effect” on their reputations.

The fraternity asserts in the lawsuit that “Rolling Stone published a devastating story it knowingly failed to verify, in reckless disregard for truth or falsity, or the essential safety, dignity, and welfare of the organization or of those lives it was willing to crush with its defamatory article.” In the wake of the article’s publication, the fraternity house was vandalized and fraternity members received death threats. Furthermore, according to the complaint, one fraternity member was asked by a potential employer, “Oh, were you in the fraternity that raped girls?”

Clearly, Rolling Stone should have done more substantive fact checking before running the article. Given the seeming rise of sexual assault crimes on college campuses, it will be interesting to see how the court deals with the sensitive nature of this topic.

–Erin Webb


One Response to “A Rape on Campus” = $25 million Defamation Lawsuit for Rolling Stone

  1. kgallardo says:

    This post made me reflect on the potential pitfalls of Internet journalism; in a rush to get content posted, journalists may be more inclined to do shoddy fact checking, or what appears in the Rolling Stone case, no fact checking at all. The pressure on mainstream media to be the first to produce content on an issue due to heightened competition from Internet news sources also contributes to these types of instances of poor fact checking.