What Could Happen To 'Rolling Stone' If The Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity Sues For Defamation?

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 20: A general view of atmosphere at Rolling Stone hosts Bacardi Rebels at Roseland Ballroom on May 20, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Rolling Stone)
Source: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

After Rolling Stone retracted its story "A Rape on Campus," the fraternity accused of the alleged gang rape, Phi Kappa Psi, said it will pursue legal action against the magazine. The fraternity issued a statement on Monday, calling the article a "sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards" and referring to the magazine's actions as "reckless behavior." Phi Kappa Psi's statement explains that the fraternity believes it was defamed and alleges that the article led to multiple instances of vandalism to the chapter's house in Charlottesville. So, what could happen to Rolling Stone if Phi Kappa Psi sues?

First of all, The Washington Post points out that UVA, as a public university, can't seek legal action against the magazine because government agencies can't sue for libel. It might be possible, however, for individual members or Phi Kappa Psi as a whole to sue. According to the Media Law Resource Center, for a statement to be considered libelous, it must meet the following criteria: it was defamatory, it was published, it was false, and it was made with fault. Possible libel cases such as this one hinge on negligence, and the Columbia Journalism School's investigation seems to provide ample evidence of allegedly negligent reporting and editing. If the party that sues the magazine is successful, they could claim damages for harm to their reputation, and Rolling Stone could possibly be forced to pay a lot of money.

Here's a look at the two types of damages Phi Kappa Psi or its individual members could possibly seek from Rolling Stone.

Actual Damages

Private figures, meaning someone not in the public eye, can seek damages for actual harm caused by defamatory statements if they can prove negligence. Actual damages, also called compensatory damages, typically include things like the loss of a job, but could also include mental anguish and personal humiliation caused by the defamation. 

Punitive Damages

Although punitive damages are issued less often, they are given in addition to actual damages and are meant to punish the defendant. In order to receive punitive damages, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant knew the statements were false when they published them or they were published with reckless disregard for the truth, often referred to as actual malice. In this case, the plaintiff would possibly argue that Rolling Stone was reckless, not necessarily that the magazine knowingly published a false story. According to the Post, proving recklessness is more difficult to prove than negligence because the plaintiff would need to show that Rolling Stone editors doubted the likeliness of the story and published it anyway.

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