Rolling Stone gang-rape libel suit headed to trial

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A University of Virginia (UVA) dean’s lawsuit against Rolling Stone over its retracted gang-rape article has survived summary judgment, and is now completely clear to go to trial next month.

Nicole Eramo sued Rolling Stone for $7.85 million last year over her portrayal in its story “A Rape on Campus.” It tells the story of UVA student Jackie Coakley, who claimed she was gang-raped at a fraternity party and then spent years struggling to get justice. The article portrayed Eramo as callous toward Coakley’s plight and unwilling to take action to stop sexual assault because “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.” The magazine even took a photo of Eramo giving a lecture and photoshopped it to make her look more sinister.

But Rolling Stone eventually had to retract its entire story, after follow-up investigations revealed Coakley had invented the story as part of a bizarre scheme to win the affections of a boy she had a crush on.

Eramo’s case was the first lawsuit filed against Rolling Stone over the article, and is the most likely to succeed. Eramo claims Rolling Stone and writer Sabrina Erdely had ample reason to distrust Coakley’s story, but published the story anyway due to a mixture of recklessness and desire to push a particular narrative. (RELATED: Rolling Stone Author Was Too Lazy To Fix Bogus Gang Rape Article)

Now, after more than a year of discovery and preliminary hearings, Eramo’s case has survived a motion for summary judgment and has been cleared to go to trial. In a 26-page ruling issued Thursday, Judge Glen Conrad rejected and accepted various motions from the plaintiff and defense, but the end result is that Eramo’s case will go to trial next month.

Conrad has thrown up one substantial obstacle to Eramo in the upcoming trial. Last week, Conrad ruled that Eramo is a limited-purpose public figure, rather than a private citizen, because of her status as the head of UVA’s sexual misconduct board. The ruling means Eramo must meet a substantially higher burden to win her case, as she must prove Rolling Stone acted with “actual malice” against her by either printing facts they knew were false or by acting with a reckless disregard for the truth.

Despite the high burden, though, Eramo should have a fair chance of success. Conrad’s ruling says there is substantial evidence Erdely had a specific narrative in mind when she began writing her article, and sought out (or manipulated) facts to fit that preset narrative. Conrad also says a jury will be allowed to determine whether Rolling Stone showed malice by keeping its hostile description of Eramo, unedited, within the article even after the magazine admitted it could not trust Coakley’s claims.

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