A University of Virginia associate dean of students filed a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine Tuesday, alleging that it portrayed her as callous and indifferent to allegations of sexual assault on campus and made her the university’s “chief villain” in a now-debunked article about a fraternity gang rape.
Nicole Eramo is seeking more than $7.5 million in damages from Rolling Stone; its parent company, Wenner Media; and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the investigative journalist who wrote the explosive account of sexual assault on the campus in Charlottesville. The magazine retracted the article after news organizations and the Columbia University journalism school found serious flaws in it.
Eramo, who is the university’s chief administrator dealing with sexual assaults, argues in the lawsuit that the article destroyed her credibility, permanently damaged her reputation and caused her emotional distress. She assailed the account as containing numerous falsehoods that the magazine could have avoided if it had worked to verify the story of its main subject, a student named Jackie who alleged she was gang-raped in 2012 and that the university mishandled her case.
“Rolling Stone and Erdely’s highly defamatory and false statements about Dean Eramo were not the result of an innocent mistake,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court. “They were the result of a wanton journalist who was more concerned with writing an article that fulfilled her preconceived narrative about the victimization of women on American college campuses, and a malicious publisher who was more concerned about selling magazines to boost the economic bottom line for its faltering magazine, than they were about discovering the truth or actual facts.”
The complaint focuses on a 9,000-word exposé called “A Rape on Campus,” which caused a sensation when it was published online in November. The article began with a vividly detailed narrative of a brutal sexual assault at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012. Jackie, identified by only her first name, said that as a freshman she was ambushed at a party, with seven men taking turns raping her while two others watched.
Following reports in The Washington Post in December highlighting inconsistencies in Rolling Stone’s account of Jackie’s alleged assault, the Charlottesville Police Department later concluded that the allegations could not be substantiated. The police also noted that Eramo swiftly moved to help Jackie and arranged for her to meet with detectives about her alleged sexual assault almost immediately after the dean learned of the allegations. Police Chief Timothy J. Longo has said that Jackie refused to cooperate with his department’s investigators on multiple occasions.
In early April, Columbia University’s journalism school published an independent review of the magazine’s reporting and found that the article was “deeply flawed.” The next day, Phi Kappa Psi announced plans to file a lawsuit against Rolling Stone, but the fraternity has not yet done so.
Rolling Stone and Erdely declined to comment about the lawsuit Tuesday, and a lawyer for Jackie also declined to comment.
The University of Virginia released a statement supporting Eramo, saying that the school “fully supports and appreciates the professional competency and contributions of Dean Eramo and all of her colleagues who work tirelessly in the support of our students and their safety and wellbeing.”
According to Eramo’s lawsuit, filed by the Clare Locke law firm in Alexandria, the magazine alleged that Eramo acted disdainfully to Jackie’s claims, “did nothing in response” and sought to suppress “Jackie’s alleged gang rape to protect UVA’s reputation.”
“Erdely and Rolling Stone’s epic failure of journalism was the result of biased, agenda-driven reporting,” the lawsuit says. The suit claims that the magazine’s account represented “a purposeful avoidance of the truth, and an utter failure to investigate the accuracy of Jackie’s claims.”
The magazine also printed a photo illustration of Eramo that she argues is inflammatory; the lawsuit says that the magazine turned a mundane Cavalier Daily student newspaper photo of her addressing a classroom and turned it into a wild-eyed image of her sitting in an office and giving a thumbs-up in front of a distraught sexual assault victim as protesters hold signs outside. The lawsuit claims the doctored image “demonstrates the lengths Erdely and Rolling Stone were willing to go to portray Dean Eramo as a villain.”
The complaint details that after the article’s publication, Eramo received hundreds of spiteful e-mails from alumni and others who judged her based on her portrayal in Rolling Stone. In addition to containing rape and death threats, the messages described Eramo as a “wretched rape apologist” and “a disgusting, worthless piece of trash” who should “burn in hell forever.”
As the article gained international attention, Eramo lost sleep, had difficulty eating, experienced emotional distress and sought counseling, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also alleges that Eramo, emotionally and physically drained, suffered surgical complications during an operation to treat a recurring case of breast cancer, leading her to spend additional days in the hospital.
The complaint argues that Eramo made considerable efforts to help Jackie, who first spoke to U-Va. officials about her alleged assault after she was summoned to a meeting about her having failed three classes.
The suit says that Eramo helped Jackie meet with police, introduced her to sexual assault support groups on campus and encouraged the student to persuade other alleged Phi Kappa Psi rape victims to come forward so that U-Va. “could take action against the fraternity if the allegations were well founded.”
The complaint portrays Eramo as a beloved figure on campus among sexual-assault-prevention activists and rape survivors. A crowd-funding Web site aiming to raise $500,000 to help Eramo pay her legal fees against Rolling Stone has collected more than $20,000 in donations from administrators, students and alumni in its first days.
Eramo joined the U-Va. faculty shortly after her graduation from the public flagship in 1997, and she proceeded to receive a master’s degree and doctorate in education at the university. She has spent much of her time on campus dedicated to causes related to sexual assault.
Since 2006, Eramo has overseen the university’s sexual-misconduct board, which adjudicates allegations of rape on campus.
The lawsuit further claims that Eramo is misquoted in Rolling Stone and that she also never told Jackie that the administration does not publicize sexual-assault statistics “because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school,” as the Rolling Stone account reported.
Eramo’s lawyers claim that Jackie had informed Rolling Stone prior to the article’s publication that Eramo’s quotes were false and that the student “never told Erdely that Dean Eramo made these statements.”
The complaint notes that Jackie told the magazine that she disagreed with its depiction of Eramo. After the Rolling Stone article was published, Jackie joined other sexual assault prevention advocates and survivors in a letter of support for Eramo. Jackie wrote that Eramo counseled her with compassion at a time when the student was severely depressed.
“Dean Eramo has truly saved my life,” Jackie wrote. “She listened attentively to my story and provided me with several resources. . . . I can’t imagine what my life would be like now if it were not for Nicole Eramo.”