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UVA Dean Sues Rolling Stone for Defamation

UVA Dean Sues Rolling Stone for Defamation

The retraction is just the beginning.

http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-20141119?page=5

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.

Via WaPo:

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.

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Comments

Here’s hoping UVA wants this money to help pay off Phi Kappa Psi.

    Milhouse in reply to JohnC. | May 12, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    UVA isn’t suing. And Eramo owes nothing to ΦΚΨ.

      RandomCrank in reply to Milhouse. | May 12, 2015 at 4:32 pm

      As a public university, UVA is a government entity and is legally barred from filing a defamation lawsuit. But UVA’s employees are another matter entirely. I dearly hope Nicole Eramo takes Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely to the cleaners for their outrageous conduct.

Good.

There should be consequences for Rolling Stone, or else this is just going to keep happening.

OOOOOOooooohhh, yeah…!!!

This is just the opening of the eventual litigation that will come out of this miserable lil’ chapter in the War On Men.

They opened the ball. Now they get to pay the piper.

God speed!

So when is Teresa Sullivan going to be sued?

Ain’t gonna be gathering no moss no time soon.

    Not A Member of Any Organized Political in reply to Anchovy. | May 12, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Ain’t gonna be rolling much longer either……..

    Lying Rolling Stone presses stopped stone cold…….

Why isn’t she suing Jackie Coakley?

    RandomCrank in reply to Milhouse. | May 12, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Three reasons come to mind: First, Coakley is deeply disturbed, at best. Second, she doesn’t have any money. Third, in view of the first two realities, Eramo’s lawyers have told her that suing Coakley will produce no gain, while making Eramo look heartless and vindictive.

    Ordinarily, I’d say go after Coakley, but in this case I think Eramo did the wise thing.

Is this a preemptive strike to try to shield herself from individual plaintiffs out of the fraternity, or the fraternity itself?

…kind-of a “Hey, they did it to me, too” defense?

    Milhouse in reply to MJN1957. | May 12, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Why would they have a claim against her?

      Ragspierre in reply to Milhouse. | May 12, 2015 at 5:49 pm

      If you republish a defamation, you can be liable for it, too.

      Dunno she did or didn’t, just answering your question.

      She could be liable under some other theories, but I’d have to think about that, and my thinker is tuckered.

        Milhouse in reply to Ragspierre. | May 12, 2015 at 11:56 pm

        Republish? Where would she do that? She’s not a publisher. And why would she republish a defamation against herself?

          Ragspierre in reply to Milhouse. | May 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

          Poor, heywired Milhouse…

          To “republish” is to repeat. As in “She republished (repeated) the libelous statements made by Rolling Stone regarding the fraternity”.

          RandomCrank in reply to Milhouse. | May 13, 2015 at 5:52 pm

          Nicole Eramo’s job as associate dean required her to deal with the furor instigated by Rolling Stone’s libelous article. I see no evidence that Eramo “republished” anything.

RandomCrank | May 12, 2015 at 4:56 pm

I used to be a reporter. I went to journalism school where I studied, among other things, libel law. My first city editor came from the famed Chicago City News Bureau, known for their mottoes: “Never assume anything” and “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

Legal Insurrection is a conservative website, and my politics are truly independent — which means I am everyone’s heretic and traitor, which is what every journalist, current and former, really ought to be.

As soon as I heard about this case, and read as much of that tripe in Rolling Stone as I could stand to read, “libel” came to mind. The lawyers will hash it out in court, but everything I learned screamed “prima facie libel,” at least against the fraternity, which was accused of harboring members who committed an act of moral turpitude.

“Prima facie libel” means there’s no need to prove that the material was defamatory. That much is assumed in certain cases, and an accusation of moral turpitude is one of them. In those instances, the court considers only whether the target was a public figure or a private figure for purposes of determining whether the defamation is eligible to be remedied by damages; any factors mitigating damages; and of course the amount of damages themselves.

In the case of the fraternity, since no members were named, it would be a case of “group libel,” which is harder to bring to court. Not a lawyer here, but I have always thought that the frat has an excellent group libel case, and a prima facie one.

The administrator, Ms. Eramo, wasn’t accused of rape. My guess is that she’ll have to prove defamation, but I don’t think that will be difficult. She’ll probably be a public figure for purposes of libel law, which requires her to show “actual malice,” which means that the publication exhibit “reckless disregard for the truth or falsity” of what it published.

I think it’s a slam-dunk of a case. I am very, very happy that she’s brought the case, and like Legal Insurrection, I give UVA a big thumbs-up for its full-throated support for Ms. Eramo. I hope others will file lawsuits, including the fraternity.

When I was a reporter, I made some mistakes. After all, we are human beings and not machines. Or to quote a different editor, who I think was quoting someone else: “Ours is a product of daily dissatisfaction.” To this day, I can name each one of them. Even now, it just kills me to get a fact wrong, or to be insufficiently diligent in looking at all sides of a story.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone did not make ordinary mistakes of the kind that can be rectified by tucking one’s tail between one’s legs and apologizing. They engaged in a vicious and premeditated slur, facts be damned. I have not one shred of sympathy for any of them. If the end result is that Rolling Stone folds and Erdely has her paychecks from her next occupation as a Starbucks barista garnisheed for the rest of her working life, so be it.

To say that this thing was “shameful” would be quite the understatement. Nicole Eramo and the University of Virginia: GOOD SHOW!

    Ragspierre in reply to RandomCrank. | May 12, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    The term of art, I think you mean, is “defamation per se”.

    Under that term, one need not prove damages as a proximate consequence of the defamation, as would be required normally.

    Damages are assumed. Those CAN, however, still be nominal damages. One thing about even nominal damages is that they open the door (in many jurisdictions) to punitive damages. So, while you may be awarded $500 in actual damages in any libel or slander suit, a jury can award you many multiples of that in punitive damages if, as here, the conduct of the tortfeasor was egregious.

      RandomCrank in reply to Ragspierre. | May 12, 2015 at 6:25 pm

      I took that class almost 40 years ago, so it wouldn’t surprise me if I mangled a detail. But I really do think I recall being taught about “prima facie” libel and slander. Would I swear to it? Nah. And if I were to write about it for broad publication, you bet I’d check more than just my memory. (I did briefly check this time on “prima facie defamation,” and it does exist, but I didn’t think it was worth my time to journey far down what is essentially a tributary.)

      In any case, I came up in the old school of general circulation journalism that began during the Civil War and reached its apogee in the 1950s and ’60s before the Vietnam War began to change things. There were always departures, a notable example being Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a work of what much later came to be known as “advocacy journalism” that was at least partly responsible for passage of the 1913 Food and Drug Act.

      Even in better times, which as much as anything means flusher times, journalism had plenty of flaws, many of them quite serious. But I really must say that I’ve been searching my memory bank and cannot think of something as shoddy as the Rolling Stone article. Actually, “shoddy” isn’t quite the word, because it implies carelessness. I actually think that Erdely’s article was a carefully manufactured set of lies, and that she knew they were, or at least that they were so obvious that a reasonable person can presume she knew she was lying.

      I think you really have to go back to the pre-World War II years to find things like bad. Duranty’s reporting in the New York Times out of the Soviet Union would qualify, and so would Hearst’s incitement of the Spanish American War. There was also the 1954 Sam Sheppard case in Cleveland, a crime story that got out of hand and falsely maligned an innocent man, causing him to be convicted of a murder he didn’t commit.

      As the traditional media wither away — a process that began in the 1970s and accelerated greatly after Craigslist and EBay took away >90% of newspaper classified ad revenue starting in the 1990s — we’re seeing more and more of this stuff. Just look at the cases of Trayvon Martin, the Ferguson riots, the Cliven Bundy standoff, and global climate change — reporting has given way to incitement and propaganda. Same goes for the run-up to the Iraq War, which was built on a series of outrageous lies from the W administration, dutifully parrotted everywhere.

      But the Rolling Stone story strikes me as, if not unique, then maybe one of the most vivid examples of outright lies, propaganda and villification that I’ve seen. In the other cases I cited, you could at least try to argue that there were more complexities involved and therefore it was harder for anyone to get the facts and give a reasonably true account.

      Not with this one. Rolling Stone and Erdely absolutely MUST be punished, and severely. The best outcome would be if the publication is sued out of existence, and Erdely is impoverished by a court judgment. Figuatively speaking, let them rot along the Appian Way as an example to others.

        Ragspierre in reply to RandomCrank. | May 12, 2015 at 6:26 pm

        Yep. I appreciate your insights from your training and experience.

          RandomCrank in reply to Ragspierre. | May 12, 2015 at 8:53 pm

          Thanks. I have been increasingly dissatisfied with the media, to the point of worrying about the long-term effects. The degradation is across the board. Fox is a joke, barely tolerable. The New York Times has fallen off a cliff in the last five years. There are hardly any major metro newspapers worth reading.

          I don’t especially care — not all that much, anyway — what politics they have. It’s the wholesale abandonment of recognizable journalism that has me worrying. We’re in an environment where facts themselves are up for grabs, as was the case with the press before the Civil War created a popular demand for accurate battle reports, and cheap printing presses enabled mass dissemination.

          The Internet certainly enables even greater dissemination and a lot more diversity. That has some very positive effects; among other things, it’s somewhat more difficult for what’s left of the established media to get away with a lot of lies.

          At the same time, though, there is an explosion of tribalism, an ongoing collapse of crosstalk between opposing viewpoints. I think it’s leading to fragmentation and a dimunition of what Arthur Schlesinger called “the vital center.” We increasingly see the clash of True Believers, and a concomitant demand for ideological purity.

          At its best, traditional journalism was one important sphere where compromise was hashed out, and where the major centers were held to common standards of fact and logic. When you pause and stand back, can anyone be satisfied with what’s going on in either party, and the choices we’re going to be offered in 2016 and thereafter?

          The Rolling Stone article is truly egregious and absolutely outrageous, but that execrable piece of trash didn’t appear out of nowhere. This time it’s liberal lying and ax-grinding, but there are similar — if not quite so vividly obvious — examples across the political spectrum.

          I have to take the long view, I suppose, and hope that we’re seeing the pendulum at or nearing an extreme, to swing back toward something better. I hope so.

    Crank: I enjoy reading your posts. Don’t be a stranger around here.

“The University of Virginia released a statement supporting Eramo”

Have they issued a statement supporting the frat?

Have they issued an apology to the frat?

Did Eramo demand evidence and truth before the frat was convicted?

I hope rolling stone pays the highest price possible, but not to the left wing commies at UVA that were more than happy to see a fraternity get tortured until the narrative fell apart.

    Milhouse in reply to Barry. | May 13, 2015 at 12:01 am

    What does Eramo have to do with the frat? And what does the frat have to do with her? When was the frat “convicted” of anything, and why should Eramo have “demand[ed] evidence and truth”, or anything at all in relation to it?

      Barry in reply to Milhouse. | May 13, 2015 at 1:29 am

      “What does Eramo have to do with the frat?”

      From the article –
      “UVA associate dean of students Nicole Eramo”

      I know this is hard for you millhouse, but try. The fraternity members are students, unjustly accused, and immediately sanctioned by the university (the “conviction”), the same one that Eramo is the dean of students, with one of her chief responsibilities being the handling of sexual assaults.

      Get back to me when you can find any evidence that the Dean of Students at UVA acted on behalf of those students when tried and convicted by the same university with zero evidence.

        RandomCrank in reply to Barry. | May 13, 2015 at 6:57 pm

        I recall UVA putting its entire Greek system (not just the one frat) on a sort of lockdown for the remainder of the semester. Once enough smoke had cleared for the article to be revealed as a collection of lies, UVA lifted the lockdown.

        I can readily understand and sympathize with the resentment this undoubtedly caused at UVA. If I had been there at the time, I’d be mighty upset about it. But, given the circumstances, I find it difficult to be very critical of UVA’s handling of what was a terribly difficult situation.

        Place the blame where it belongs, not on UVA.

          Barry in reply to RandomCrank. | May 14, 2015 at 6:14 pm

          “Place the blame where it belongs, not on UVA”

          Sorry, but the students were “convicted” and mistreated by UVA and UVA alone. They had the choice to ask for actual evidence before taking action. That is on UVA alone.

          The rolling stone article was just the “narrative” the UVA administration wanted. That it blew up in their face was just not expected.

          The blame for the actions taken by UVA belongs to UVA.

    RandomCrank in reply to Barry. | May 13, 2015 at 1:05 am

    In my imperfect memory, UVA was quicker to sanction the fraternities than I’d have been. But that’s not to say I’d have been correct, given the circumstances at the time. I can easily imagine that, in this environment, the sort of hesitation I’d have preferred might’ve been interpreted as “Southern intrangisence,” with the subsequent debunking being drowned out in the furor.

    When it hits the fan and all hell breaks loose, logic is lost. Look, for example, at the right-wing circus over the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Once the mudballs start flying, the usual appropriate choreography is lost. Same goes for Baltimore, which felt compelled to indict a slew of police officers, no matter what.

    Now the fog of the first battle at UVA has dissipated, and you are tempted to retroactively direct traffic. Give it up, I say. In the end, UVA’s response was dictated by a group of human beings, not machines. Perfection shouldn’t be the standard. Were they good enough? Yes, I answer, and then some.

      Barry in reply to RandomCrank. | May 13, 2015 at 1:35 am

      “Were they good enough? Yes, I answer, and then some.”

      If your son was a member of the fraternity falsely accused of orchestrating a rape, then sanctioned by the university, I don’t think you would feel they were “good enough”.

      You people accept every damn thing the left does in their war on males, and think it is OK.

      Rolling Stone is a big problem. The university bought it hook, line, and sinker, because that is what they wanted to believe.

      “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Richard Aubrey | May 13, 2015 at 7:53 am

Does this depend on the contract between Erdely and RS? If E was an employee, that would be one thing. If a free-lance selling RS a product, would that be another? Is there a hold-harmless agreement in there someplace and would it matter in this case?

    Ragspierre in reply to Richard Aubrey. | May 13, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Nope. In practicality, a hold-harmless or indemnity agreement just means that if RS is sued, Erdely would be looked to for a defense of the lawsuit and for payment of a judgment. Which ain’t gonna happen, because Erdely would never be worth the liability. RS might wring her dry, but there would still be LOTS left hanging around RS’s neck.

    There’s no practical difference between a defaming employee and a defaming contractor when you publish their defamation.

RandomCrank | May 13, 2015 at 5:45 pm

I did some more clicking around. There is a group called “One Less at UVA” that, according to information on its Facebook page, appears to have been the catalyst for connecting Rolling Stone with Jackie Coakley, the non-victim.

Perhaps they, and others, could find themselves added to this or other defamation complaints? After all, while Rolling Stone committed libel, defamation by spoken word — slander — is what got the ball rolling.

Richard Aubrey | May 14, 2015 at 10:22 pm

Rags. Wrt yrs of May 13. FANTASTIC!!!!

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