Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in a now-retracted Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, has sued the magazine and the piece’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, seeking $25 million in damages.
“In the most scurrilous traditions of yellow tabloid journalism, Rolling Stone published a devastating story it knowingly failed to verify, in reckless disregard for truth or falsity, or the essential safety, dignity, and welfare of the organization or of those lives it was willing to crush with its defamatory Article and subsequent cover-up attempts,” the fraternity alleges in its complaint.
“A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” was published on Nov. 19, 2014, stunning readers with its account of a brutal, ritualistic gang rape of a girl referred to in the piece as Jackie, at the hands of callous fraternity members for whom, it was implied, this was an initiation. But subsequent reporting in The Washington Post and other publications raised questions about how Erdely had corroborated Jackie’s story. Rolling Stone commissioned a report from Columbia’s journalism school that in April led to them apologizing for and retracting the piece. Managing Editor Will Dana eventually resigned.
The complaint says that “Rolling Stone set out in advance to find a sensational story of graphic and violent rape, searched for such a story at elite universities, and rejected other possible stories because the sexual assaults they portrayed were too ‘normal.’ Rolling Stone endorsed and encouraged Erdely’s efforts to troll elite American college campuses in search of a sensational and graphic rape narrative … Rolling Stone and Erdely had an agenda, and they were recklessly oblivious to the harm they would cause innocent victims in their ruthless pursuit of that agenda.”
The fraternity also alleges that Erdely and Rolling Stone knew they had an unreliable source and intentionally did not verify the details of Jackie’s account with other people, as the Washington Post later did: ”The Article was intentionally crafted to deceive readers into believing Rolling Stone had identified Drew and spoken to all key witnesses, when in fact Rolling Stone had itself developed the idea of simply creating a fictional name for the assailant, having also intentionally decided not to identify or interview Drew or any of Jackie’s three friends.” The complaint also cites a radio interview Erdely did to promote the story after it was published, in which she said, “Everything about Jackie is entirely credible. I put her story through the wringer. I talked to all of her friends, all of the people she confided in along the way.”
The fraternity’s suit, which originates in the circuit court in the city of Charlottesville, is the third to be filed against the magazine, following actions by its alumni and by a dean at the University of Virginia, Nicole Eramo.