By Ashe Schow
A jury has determined that Rolling Stone, its publisher and one of its authors are liable for defamation with malice when they published their now-retracted article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia.
NBC 29 reports that Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the story, was found liable on six claims, while the magazine was found liable on three. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was also found liable on three claims.
The verdict marks the end of a two-week trial, which was brought on by a lawsuit filed against the defendants by U.Va. dean Nicole Eramo, who said she was portrayed as callous toward sexual assault accusers.
During the trial, jurors listened to an audio recording of Erdely interviewing the alleged victim, “Jackie,” who claimed she was gang-raped by seven men as part of a fraternity initiation. Jackie told Erdely she wanted “bad publicity” for her school, while Erdely insinuated that fraternities were inherently bad.
We also learned that Rolling Stone edited out information favorable to Eramo. The dean had tried to get Jackie to go to the police, but the final draft of the story made it seem as if Eramo was no more in favor of that then, say, an informal resolution.
When Wenner testified, he said he wished the magazine hadn’t issued a full retraction to the article, apologized to Eramo, but said that he had “suffered as much as” she had.
In closing arguments, Eramo’s attorney, Tom Clare, told the jury that Rolling Stone came into the story with bias (as evidenced in Erdely’s interview with Jackie).
“Once they decided what the article was going to be about, it didn’t matter what the facts were,” Clare said.
Jurors heard how Erdely failed to locate the men Jackie said raped her, or even talk to Jackie’s friends who were there the night of the alleged assault. The accuser’s story fell apart after police determined that no party occurred at the fraternity house the night in question and that the man Jackie claimed lured her to the party didn’t exist. Her friends also disputed her account of that night, saying they didn’t find her in a torn and bloody dress, as she claimed.
The jury began deliberating on Wednesday. The amount of damages Eramo will receive (she sought $7.5 million) will be determined at another time.
While an appeal is certain to happen, this is a stunning development in what has been a years-long scandal for the magazine. This verdict comes after another jury held Gawker responsible for publishing a private video of wrestling great Hulk Hogan.
In response to the verdict, Rolling Stone apologized to Eramo.
“When we published ‘A Rape on Campus’ in 2014, we were attempting to tackle the very serious and complex topic of sexual assault on college campuses, a subject that is more relevant today than ever” Rolling Stone said in a statement. “In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again.”
“We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo,” the statement continued. “It is our deep hope that our failings to not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimatey results in campus policies that better protect our students.”