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Defamation Trial Over 'Rolling Stone' Rape Allegation Story Begins

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. The fraternity was at the center of a controversial <em>Rolling Stone</em> article describing an alleged gang rape at the school.
Steve Helber
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. The fraternity was at the center of a controversial Rolling Stone article describing an alleged gang rape at the school.

A defamation trial against Rolling Stone,based on a 2014 article about an alleged rape on the campus of the University of Virginia, got underway in federal court on Monday.

The magazine retracted the story after scrutiny revealed inconsistencies. The trial beginning now involves a former dean at the school who has sued for $7.85 million over her portrayal in the piece.

Jury selection in the case began early Monday at a federal court in Charlottesville, Va., The Associated Press reports.

The 2014 article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was explosive. In it, a student identified as "Jackie" described a brutal gang rape at a fraternity party in 2012, followed by callous indifference from college authorities.

Several outlets, including The Washington Post,identified major inconsistencies in the reporting. Soon afterward, Rolling Stone retracted the story, saying the magazine had relied too much on "Jackie's" account and did not adequately work to confirm her story.

An investigation found that repeated, systematic failures within the magazine led to the article's publication.

In the article, "Jackie" and the alleged assailants were never identified by their real names. But Nicole Eramo, a former associate dean of students, was.

Eramo sued for defamation last spring. She said the article painted her as the "chief villain" of the story, full of indifference toward a sexual assault allegation.

In her complaint, Eramo says in part:

"Erdely and Rolling Stone claimed — both in the article and in a slew of media appearances and interviews designed to increase publicity for the article — that Dean Eramo intentionally tried to coddle Jackie to persuade her not to report her rape; that she was indifferent to Jackie's allegations; that she discouraged Jackie from sharing her story with others; that she 'abuse[d]' Jackie; that she did 'nothing' in response to Jackie's allegations; that she claimed that UVA withholds rape statistics 'because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school'; that she did not report Jackie's alleged assault to the police; that she 'brushed off' Jackie; and that she actively sought to 'suppress' Jackie's supposed gang rape. ... These statements, and the portrayal of Dean Eramo, in 'A Rape on Campus' and in Erdely and Rolling Stone's subsequent public statements, are categorically false."

The AP reports that Eramo's attorneys intend to call "Jackie" as a witness, either in person or with video of her deposition being shown to jurors. If that happens, according to the news service, it will be the first time "Jackie" has publicly addressed the discredited article since it was published.

Reuters has more on the lawsuit, and some recent developments:

"Lawyers for Rolling Stone have argued that Eramo's attorneys must prove that Erdely and the magazine's editors acted with "actual malice" — meaning reckless disregard for the truth - when they published the claims against Eramo.

"Rolling Stone lawyers have said that up until the magazine's publication of an editor's note about the story's inconsistencies, it had full confidence in Jackie and the story. ...

"Defense lawyers said last week that Eramo's lawyers had leaked a video deposition of Erdely to ABC television's '20/20' news program for broadcast on Friday. They asked U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad to punish Eramo's team for violating a protective order and to move the trial, claiming that the broadcast could taint the jury pool.

"Conrad barred Eramo and her legal team from breaching the order anew and from using the Erdely deposition at trial. They also could face more sanctions, he wrote."

Three U.Va. graduates, members of the fraternity named in the story, previously sued for defamation, as well. Their case was dismissed, with a judge noting that the three individuals were not named in the story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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