Defamation trial begins over Rolling Stone's 'a rape on campus'

It has been nearly two years since Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” the infamous article which described the gang-rape of “Jackie” at a frat party on the campus of the University of Virginia. Jackie’s story, and Sabrina Erdely’s account of it for the magazine, turned out to be completely false. A police investigation found no evidence of a sexual assault and the Washington Post found evidence the upper-classman Jackie accused of walking her into the gang rape never existed. He was merely an invention intended to make Jackie’s real romantic interest jealous.


Rolling Stone withdrew the story, but the woman portrayed as the villain of in the piece, university administrator Nicole Eramo, has sued the magazine for $7.85 million for defamation. The trial begins Monday. From Fox News:

In giving the green light last month for the case to proceed to trial, Judge Conrad said he believes a jury could reasonably conclude based on the evidence presented thus far that the magazine acted out of actual malice. He noted that the evidence suggests that several people told Erdely her portrayal of Eramo wasn’t accurate and that Erdely had reasons to question Jackie’s credibility.

Among other things, the judge pointed to Erdely’s apparent disbelief when Jackie told her that two other women were gang raped at the same fraternity. Erdely told Jackie that was “shocking,” according to her reporting notes.

“I don’t know the stats on gang rape but I can’t imagine it’s all that common? So the idea that three women were gang raped at the same fraternity seems like too much of a coincidence,” Erdely wrote.

“It happens a lot more often than people might think,” Jackie replied.

Eramo’s attorneys have called on “Jackie” to testify during the trial. She has already given a deposition in April, so it’s possible the jury will only see video rather than hearing from her in person.


One question this story brought to mind: Why are we still referring to the woman who made these claims as “Jackie.” Her real name is obviously known to authorities and also to several news outlets covering the case, yet her identity remains a secret.

The purpose of refusing to publish the identities of rape victims was to shield them from hurtful public scrutiny. But it has been clear for more than a year that Jackie is not a victim. The Washington Post wrote a piece about Jackie’s identity in January which quoted two individuals who were in favor of keeping her identity a secret:

Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, said he, too, would be against revealing Jackie’s name. Columbia’s highly critical report on the Rolling Stone article, which Coll co-wrote, didn’t name Jackie when it was released in April.

“It’s an unusual situation, and I understand the argument on the other side, but I would not name her,” said Coll, a former Post managing editor. “She never solicited Rolling Stone to be written about. She’s not responsible for the journalism mistakes. To name her now just feels gratuitous, lacking sufficient public purpose. That could change depending on how the legal cases unfold, but that’s my sense now.”

It’s true that “Jackie” isn’t responsible for the mistakes made by Rolling Stone but she is responsible for her own. She may not have initially solicited Rolling Stone to tell her bogus story but when given the chance she did tell it. Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, agrees that Jackie should remain anonymous:


“We still have an environment overall that is hostile and suspicious of people who say they were sexually assaulted,” she said. “For many people, there are risks that come along with public exposure,” such as harassment, bullying or additional violence. “It’s best to leave it up to the survivors” to make the call, Houser said.

All of that makes sense except for one thing: Jackie is not a survivor. So why is the media still treating her like a victim?

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