The smoke may have cleared, but the Rolling Stone retraction disaster isn’t over yet. UVA associate dean of students Nicole Eramo has filed a multimillion dollar defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone, its parent company Wenner Media, and journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely for their portrayal of Eramo in the now-retracted and forever infamous “A Rape on Campus.”
One of Eramo’s chief responsibilities at UVA was to handle allegations of sexual assault. In the complaint, she argues that Rolling Stone and Erdely used her to personify the “campus indifferent to sexual assault” narrative and as a result caused her emotional and physical distress, and damaged her reputation.
The complaint itself is a parade of horrors. It lays out the allegations Rolling Stone and Erdely made one by one—that Eramo coddled Jackie, that she was indifferent to Jackie’s allegations, that she pressured Jackie to not report a rape, that she abused Jackie, and that she attempted to suppress Jackie’s rape—and lays out the case that Rolling Stone’s own subsequent statements to the media prove that those allegations weren’t only untrue, but “categorically false” and defamatory per se.
Eramo’s attorneys argue that Rolling Stone and Erdely acted with “actual malice”—they knew Jackie was unreliable, they had serious doubts about the story, and yet they ran with it anyway because they were desperate to fulfill their own narrative and sell magazines.
To their great credit, the higher-ups at the university are supporting Eramo in her battle against Rolling Stone.
The University of Virginia released a statement supporting Eramo, saying she is well within her rights to pursue the private legal action.
“The University of Virginia previously stated that the Rolling Stone article is an example of irresponsible journalism, which has damaged the reputation of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia,” the statement said. “The University fully supports and appreciates the professional competency and contributions of Dean Eramo and all of her colleagues who work tirelessly in the support of our students and their safety and wellbeing.”
Last month, Eramo blasted Rolling Stone and Erdely and said she was smeared and that Rolling Stone privately told her that their portrayal of her was “fair” and stood by the account.
In a statement released in response, Rolling Stone spokeswoman Kathryn Brenner wrote that “we sincerely regret any pain we caused Dean Nicole Eramo and others affected by this story.”
Bravo, UVA; shame on you, Rolling Stone.
Defamation suits are tricky things. When deciding whether or not to pursue legal action for, say, libel, potential plaintiffs are sometimes shocked to learn that a lawsuit can actually do more harm than good to a reputation—even one that has already been damaged. When you stir the pot, everything floats to the top. The fact that Eramo has come out publicly with this suit tells me a lot both about her as a plaintiff, and about the viability of her claims against Rolling Stone.
For Eramo to come out in her own right against a major media group is a huge deal; if it were me, I’d want to make absolutely sure that, absent the hype created by the media backlash against Rolling Stone and “Jackie,” I had a solid case. This thing is going to go national, and absent a settlement, will likely lead to the minutae of Eramo’s life being splayed across the front page of every newspaper in America.
No plaintiff is perfect; in the course of their employment, everyone has done something wrong—made a face, prioritized the wrong task, used the wrong tone on the phone with a client or customer. There’s always something that opposing counsel can use to dilute a complaint; but in this case, it appears that Dean Eramo and her lawyers are confident that the benefits of using the courts to salvage Eramo’s reputation will outweigh the risks.
You can read the full complaint here.DONATE
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