A Manhattan federal appeals court announced Tuesday that three University of Virginia graduates have the right to sue Rolling Stone magazine and its publisher after their fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, was falsely accused of gang rape in a since-discredited 2014 Rolling Stone article.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reopened part of the case on the premise that the three former students, George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford, and Ross Fowler, can contend that they were defamed in the article. The men claim that the debunked story caused them immense embarrassment and emotional anxiety, noting that their affiliation with the fraternity at the time brought them severe distress despite author Sabrina Erdely not labeling them by name in her allegation of a 2012 gang rape.
The court is letting the plaintiffs’ “small group defamation” claim move forward but otherwise is upholding a lower courts’ dismissal of the case. This is at least partially due to the appellate court’s view that the RS story allowed readers to assume that all members of the fraternity at the time were expected to participate in rape as a form of fraternal initiation. Because of this, the three 2013 graduates would have the right to argue that they were unfairly tied to the false story.
According to one judge on the panel, the decision as it stands today allows all individuals who were members of the fraternity at the time to bring similar small group defamation suits if they choose to do so.
The three men will wage a suit similar to that of a former University dean Nicole Eramo who, after facing a heightened threshold for proving defamation, won $3 million in her case against Rolling Stone and its publisher.