Rolling Stone settles one lawsuit, but fraternity suit still on

And then there was one. After taking a beating in court in a defamation lawsuit brought by a University of Virginia dean in the infamous “Jackie” case, Rolling Stone cut a deal to settle the case. It describes the settlement as “amicable,” but that comity comes from having a jury first rake it over the coals:

Rolling Stone has reached a confidential settlement with Nicole Eramo, a former University of Virginia associate dean who had sued the magazine alleging that it defamed her in a 2014 story about an alleged gang rape on campus, according to lawyers for both parties.

The settlement brings an end to a lawsuit that had roiled the U-Va. community with a case study in the practice and ethics of journalism.

“We are delighted that this dispute is now behind us, as it allows Nicole to move on and focus on doing what she does best, which is supporting victims of sexual assault,” said Libby Locke, a lawyer for Eramo, in a statement Tuesday.

Rolling Stone called the settlement an “amicable resolution.”

Actually, it only brings an end to one lawsuit for U-Va. Dean Eramo is moving on — no doubt with a significant payout that will come a lot sooner than expected — but the fraternity at the heart of the false story published by Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely isn’t. The Phi Kappa Psi chapter at U-VA continues to pursue its lawsuit, at least for now.

In fact, that lawsuit promises a few knock-down, drag-out fights of its own, as Hollywood Reporter revealed last week.  The magazine won a dismissal from a group of individual fraternity brothers last summer, but still faces an eight-figure defamation claim from the PKP chapter itself. Rolling Stone wants access to all claims of sexual assault against all PKP chapters nationwide as part of its legal strategy in fighting that lawsuit, claiming its national reputation offers some sort of defense to its publication of Rubin Erdely’s story:

Rolling Stone says records involving sexual assault at nationwide Phi Kappa Psi fraternities are paramount to its defamation fight with the Virginia Alpha Chapter over its since-redacted story of the gang rape of a University of Virginia student named “Jackie” that had purportedly happened at its campus frat house. …

“If other chapters of PKP nationwide have been disciplined and/or suspended in response to incidents of sexual assault and hazing, those incidents affect the value of the reputation that goes along with being recognized in the world as a ‘Phi Kappa Psi brother’ and, accordingly, are relevant to the damages claimed by VAC,” writes attorney Robert Hall.

In its motion to quash, PKP argues that VAC is a separate entity from the national organization and any harm to its reputation and membership are specific to the local chapter. “In regards to PKP and the Other Chapters, the information requested is not relevant to the litigation nor is it likely to lead to admissible evidence,” writes attorney Dirk McClanahan. “For example, assuming arguendo there was a hazing or sexual misconduct incident in Ames, Iowa, that incident would not prove or disprove the truth of an article that wrongly accused a party of a detailed and specific gang-rape allegation in Charlottesville, VA.”

Furthermore, Rolling Stone blames PKP for the publication of the story, arguing that they didn’t cooperate with Rubin Erdely:

“While numerous criticisms have been leveled at Rolling Stone, entirely missing from that discourse, until now, are the conscious decisions by VAC, guided by multiple lawyers, public relations experts, and national and alumni advisors to assume the risk of remaining largely silent and not sharing with Rolling Stone…the factual discrepancies in Jackie’s story of which they were aware before and immediately after the Article was published,” writes Hall. “For had they done so, the Article never would have been published.”

Er … really? Because the editors did such a bang-up job of following up and fact-checking on other aspects of the story? Later in the filing, their lawyers argue that PKP didn’t suffer any real injury because no members quit, which ignores months of abuse and targeted vandalism suffered by the fraternity between the story’s publication and its debunking when the Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro applied actual journalistic practices to the story. All of this looks like a convenient way to blame the victim for the “assault,” which is ironic under the circumstances.

For now, though, Rolling Stone is 1-1 in its courtroom fights over their “Jackie” story. Perhaps they ought to find a way to call off the rubber match rather than take that argument to a jury again.

Addendum: Ashe Schow has more thoughts here, including the history of Rubin Erdely’s reporting.