During closing arguments in the defamation trial against Rolling Stone over its story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, the plaintiff’s attorney urged the jury to recognize the magazine’s journalistic recklessness and disregard for the truth while pushing a preconceived narrative about sexual assault.
“Once they decided what the article was going to be about, it didn’t matter what the facts were,” said Tom Clare, attorney for UVA administrator and former dean Nicole Eramo, who is seeking $7.5 million in damages from the magazine and arguing that Rolling Stone defamed her as uncaring about the alleged sexual assault of a student named “Jackie.”
Sabrina Erdely, author of the 2014 “A Rape on Campus” article, was determined to tell a story of “institutional indifference,” Clare said, and projected her own opinions about victims of campus sexual assault onto the alleged victims she interviewed—including Jackie.
Clare argued that the case wasn’t about UVA’s sexual assault policy or Jackie, according to reports from the trial.
“It’s a case about journalism,” Clare said, and about how Eramo actually treated Jackie—professionally and with empathy, as a person who was in charge of the university’s sexual assault program at the time—as opposed to Rolling Stone’s portrayal of her as callous and indifferent to Jackie’s case.
He said Erdely set out to make Eramo the “villain” in her story, knowing that she was an “easy target” who couldn’t legally discuss Jackie’s case.
Eramo’s team has to convince the jury that Rolling Stone acted with “actual malice,” meaning that it either knew what it was printing about Eramo was false or should have known it was false. (Eramo was initially seeking $7.85 million from the magazine but recently withdrew her request for $350,000 in punitive damages. She is now seeking $7.5 million in compensatory damages.)
In its own closing arguments, Rolling Stone reportedly countered that Eramo’s case doesn’t meet the “actual malice” standard.
Defense attorney Scott Sexton also referenced Judge Glen Conrad’s recent ruling, which dismissed Eramo’s claim that the article’s overall implications defamed her.
Having heard evidence from Eramo’s team, Judge Conrad ruled on Monday morning that “no reasonable juror” could find that the story as a whole implied that Eramo acted as a “false friend to Jackie who pretended to be on Jackie’s side while seeking to suppress sexual assault reporting.”
Sexton said the judge’s dismissal of defamation by implication “makes 97.3 percent of Eramo’s team’s closing [statements] irrelevant.”
He also stressed that Erdely had no grudge against Eramo. “They don’t know each other,” he told the jury, going on to suggest that both women had Jackie’s best interests at heart in their respective roles in this case. “My bet is they’d like each other,” he said.
After hearing two weeks of evidence presented by Eramo’s team, including testimony from Eramo, Erdely, her editor Sean Woods, Jackie, and Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner, the court heard the defense’s case on Monday, after Judge Conrad dismissed what Rolling Stone called a “critical element” of Eramo’s case in a statement on the judge’s ruling.
Susan Davis, a UVA administrator who helped draw up the university’s 2011 Sexual Misconduct policies, testified Monday that, in 2014, the university sent documents pertaining to Jackie’s story to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
An OCR review of other cases at UVA from fall 2012 to spring 2014 found the university failed to properly investigate two sexual assault reports during this time period.
Davis testified that the university also sent the OCR documents about the story of another young woman, known as “Stacy,” whom Rolling Stone had reportedly considered using as the main focus of its article after Jackie stopped responding to Erdely’s emails before publication.
Woods, who was Erdely’s editor on the article, testified last week that he “firmly believed Jackie’s story” but admitted that he and Erdely “saw [Jackie] as a victim, and we let our guards down.”
He laid some blame at the university’s feet for failing to allow Eramo to speak with Erdely, which he suggested might have changed how she came across in the piece.
“I really wish [Eramo] would have talked with us,” Woods said, noting that she was “the public face of the [university’s sexual assault] policy.”
Wenner offered controversial testimony in a video deposition last week, throwing former Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana under the bus for his “inaccurate” retraction of the article, which the Columbia University Journalism School later called a “failure of journalism.”
While Wenner clarified that the magazine issued a “full retraction for all the Jackie stuff in that article,” he said he stood by the rest of the story “personally, professionally, and on behalf of the magazine.”
Erdely had previously testified that she also stood by “everything I wrote… except for anything that came from Jackie.”
The defense completed its closing arguments Tuesday. The jury will begin its deliberations Wednesday morning.