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Court reinstates defamation claim against Rolling Stone

September 19, 2017

A federal judge has ruled that three former University of Virginia students were defamed in a 2014 article about campus rape. The article was later retracted when it appeared the alleged victim had fabricated the story.

This Nov. 24, 2014, file photo, shows the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Helber

Just two days after iconic music magazine Rolling Stone announced that it would be selling a controlling share in the publication, a federal appeals court in New York announced it was reviving a defamation suit against the magazine.

The magazine was accused of defamation by three University of Virginia graduates over a now-retracted story that described a gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

In November 2014, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely published an article titled "A Rape On Campus," in which a female student named "Jackie" said she had been assaulted at the fraternity in September 2012. The article implied that this may have been a common occurrence at the house.

The article caused a stir across the United States and ignited a fierce debate about how sexual assault is handled on college campuses. Soon, however, questions began to arise about the accuracy of the reporting and Rolling Stone apologized for "discrepancies" in the article. Police at the Charlottesville, Virginia campus then confirmed that there was no evidence to back up Jackie's story, and she later recanted her statements, though she has said she "believed it to be true at the time."

The Columbia Journalism Review called the article "a mess—thinly sourced, full of erroneous assumptions, and plagued by gaping holes in the reporting."

Fraternity members sue

George Elias IV, Ross Fowler and Stephen Hadford then sued Erdely, Rolling Stone and its publisher Wenner Media on the grounds that they were defamed as former members of Phi Kappa Psi.

The case was first decided in favor of the plaintiffs, but then overturned on an appeal by Wenner Media in June 2016. Tuesday's decision at the federal level reinstates the original ruling in favor of Elias, Fowler and Hadford.virginia

The news came two days after Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and his son Gus announced that the magazine would no longer be a family company after 50 years of publishing, and was putting itself up for sale.

es/cw (AP, Reuters)