Rolling Stone challenges verdict in UVa defamation case

FILE - This Nov. 24, 2014, file photo, shows the Phi Kappa Psi house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Three University of Virginia graduates and members of the fraternity profiled in a debunked account of a gang rape in a retracted Rolling Stone magazine story filed a lawsuit against the publication and the article's author Wednesday,July 29, 2015, court records show. . (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Rolling Stone magazine urged a federal judge on Monday to overturn the verdict of a jury, which found that the publication and a reporter defamed a University of Virginia administrator with their botched story about a gang rape on campus.

Jurors awarded former Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo $3 million last month for her portrayal in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s November 2014 “A Rape on Campus” about a woman identified only as “Jackie.” Jackie told Erdely that she was raped by seven men in a fraternity initiation, but a police investigation found no evidence to back up Jackie’s claims.

In a motion filed Monday, attorneys for Rolling Stone said the judge should overrule the jury’s verdict because there is no evidence that Erdely acted with actual malice. They’re also challenging the jury’s finding that the magazine’s December 2014 online version of the article – with an editor’s note acknowledging problems with the story – counted as “republishing” the false statements.

Rolling Stone argues that punishing the magazine for trying to warn the public with the editor’s note could prompt other outlets to stay silent when there are errors in an article in the future.

“If the jury’s verdict is allowed to stand, the severe legal risk of adding a warning editor’s note to a story will force publishers not to make the very disclosures that the law encourages. Such a result is not only at odds with the law, it flies in the face of common sense, public policy, and the best interests of an informed public,” attorneys for Rolling Stone said.

Eramo, who counseled Jackie, had been seeking $7.5 million from the magazine, arguing that the story portrayed her as indifferent to Jackie’s plight and interested only in protecting the university’s reputation. She said during the trial that she feared for her life and contemplated suicide after the article was published.

Jurors awarded her $2 million for statements made by Erdely and $1 million for the republication of the article by Rolling Stone and its publisher, Wenner Media.

Eramo lawyer Libby Locke said in an email Monday night that Rolling Stone “still doesn’t get it.”

“Rolling Stone baldly told the jury that they heard and respected the verdict in this case. But that was obviously a lie. The very first thing that Rolling Stone filed after saying those words is a request to set the verdict aside,” Locke wrote.

Rolling Stone’s attorneys argued throughout the three-week trial that although it may have been a mistake to trust Jackie, their portrayal of the university and Eramo was fair and accurate.

Rolling Stone said Monday that to prove the editor’s note version was a “republication” of the debunked story, Eramo’s attorneys would have had to show that Rolling Stone was actively trying to target a new audience. Its attorneys wrote that it “defies logic” that Rolling Stone would try to recruit a new audience for a story that had become a “major black eye” for the publication.

The magazine did not officially retract the article and pull it down until the following April.

Because Eramo was deemed a public figure in the case, she had to prove that the magazine and Erdely acted with actual malice, meaning that that they knew what they were writing about Eramo was false or entertained serious doubts about whether it might be true.

The magazine argues that the court should reverse the jury’s finding that Erdely defamed Eramo, saying the reporter never entertained serious doubts that the statements were false.

Rolling Stone also faces a $25 million lawsuit from Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where Jackie claimed her assault took place. That case is scheduled to go to trial late next year.

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