Here at Legal Insurrection, we devoted a lot of (virtual) ink to the Rolling Stone campus rape story debacle. Sabrina Erdely’s now-retracted article on “Jackie’s” traumatic gang rape—and its relation to the campus sexual assault problem Erdely so desperately wanted to prove exists—serves as a textbook example of how not to conduct an investigation, and may end up costing Rolling Stone more than its reputation (or at least, whatever is left of it.)
Back in May, University of Virginia associate dean of students Nicole Eramo filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Rolling Stone, its parent company Wenner Media, and journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely for their portrayal of Eramo in Erdely’s story. Eramo argues that Erdely and Rolling Stone knew Jackie was unreliable, had serious doubts about the story, and yet ran with it anyway because they were desperate to fulfill their own narrative and sell magazines.
As I said in May, the benefits of attempting to salvage Eramo’s reputation via the courts must outweigh the risk that opposing counsel and the MSM could find something that causes further damage; her attorneys likely would not have filed the suit had they not performed that analysis. Still, Rolling Stone has decided to answer the complaint by claiming that UVA actually contributed to the faulty report.
In a detailed rebuttal, the magazine’s lawyers acknowledge that the Columbia report, commissioned by Rolling Stone, found that the original U-Va. story was deeply flawed. The magazine’s editors and Erdely apologized for their mistakes. But lawyers for Rolling Stone deny that the magazine libeled Eramo, noting that the account also highlighted that she is seen as an asset to the community of rape survivors on campus.
Rolling Stone’s lawyers alleged that Eramo’s assertions in the lawsuit “are not capable of being proven true or false” and therefore not subject for legal action.
The magazine’s lawyers also state that the editors and Erdely did not publish the story “with actual malice” against Eramo, meaning that they did not know then that the information was false.
In addition, the Rolling Stone lawyers say that the original article was not published “with recklessness, negligence or any other applicable degree of fault” and that the story was vetted by fact-checkers before it appeared online and in print.
The lawyers wrote in their response that “at the time of publication, they had no doubts as to the truth of the article.”
They were so sure, they went out of their way to convince themselves by altering photographs of Eramo to look like rebooted Nazi propaganda:
Of course, that isn’t Rolling Stone’s real problem—it just looks really, really bad. The problem is that they admitted they screwed up, and are now trying to hide behind their lawyers.
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