The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that three University of Virginia graduates filed suit against Rolling Stone for defamation of character and emotional distress following the magazine's decision to publish a detailed account of an alleged date rape by several members of a campus fraternity. According the the AP, three members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity — George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler — are seeking damages against reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the magazine, and publisher Wenner Media for the now-infamous article. Rolling Stone apologized for the story and issued a retraction after serious flaws in its details and timeline began to unfold.
Published in November 2014, Erdely's "A Rape On Campus" told the story of "Jackie," a UVA freshman who claimed she was raped at a 2012 party at the Psi Kappa Phi fraternity house. The story rocked UVA to its core, since one of the alleged victim's claims was that university officials had conspired to cover up her attack.
The article sparked a national conversation about rape on college campuses, but it quickly began to unravel as other outlets started looking into its details. The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism reviewed the story and found multiple reporting and ethical errors in the editing process, which lead Rolling Stone to issue a retraction in April of this year.
The Article Contained Information That Identified Three Students As Jackie's Rapists
In the lawsuit, the three students say that the details given in Jackie's story were enough to easily identify them as her alleged rapists. Erdely described the alleged location and time of the attack in such a way that, though no names were given, the claims would easily be tied to Elias, Hadford, and Fowler. According to the lawsuit, once readers made that simple connection, the plaintiffs could easily be tracked down on a number of websites and social media channels.
The Statements Made In The Article Were Easily Found To Be False
In perhaps the most damning portion of the lawsuit, the three fraternity members detail the many ways that basic fact-checking would have called aspects of Jackie's account into question. For instance, the Washington Post explored the gruesome gang rape story last December, and found several discrepancies missing from the Rolling Stone piece, including whether the fraternity actually hosted an event that night and whether any members match the descriptions that Jackie gave of the students allegedly involved in her assault.
Jackie Was Erdely's Only Source Of Information
The lawsuit also states out that, though Jackie gave vivid details and descriptions to the Rolling Stone, she was Erdely's only source of information — and proved to be an unreliable source for the story. Certainly, telling the story of such a brutal attack would be difficult for anyone, but as the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out in its review of the article's editing process, there were a number of ways Erdely and her editors could have independently verified details in the victim's account.
Erdely Never Sought Comment From The Fraternity, Or Looked For The Students Who Helped Jackie That Night
Finally, the lawsuit states that the three students weren't able to properly defend themselves against the gang rape allegations because Erdely didn't allow the fraternity to make a meaningful contribution to the story. By holding back some of the details of the allegations when Erdely reached out to the UVA chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi for comment, the students weren't allowed to refute the claims or offer any details themselves.
The three students aren't the only ones seeking damages against the magazine and its publisher. UVA Dean of Students Nicole Eramo filed an $8 million lawsuit earlier this year, also alleging defamation.