Judge Raises Bar for Dean Eramo to Prove Defamation

After being engaged in a civil action lawsuit for the past year, UVa Associate Dean Nicole Eramo is facing a new hurdle in her ongoing battle against Rolling Stone Magazine.

A district court judge’s labeling of Eramo as a “limited-purpose public figure” earlier this month raised the threshold for proving her defamation by Sabrina Erdely, author of the November 2014 article, “A Rape on Campus.” Eramo is also suing the magazine and its publisher, Wenner Media.

july28The article in question details the alleged gang-rape of a University of Virginia student – known solely by her pseudonym “Jackie” – on the night of a fraternity party held at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.  The story, which has since been discredited by the Columbia Journalism Review, was viewed over 2.7 million times and led to widespread controversy surrounding the roles of University officials in addressing sexual assault on college campuses across the US.

Eramo is the administrator in charge of handling reports of sexual assault at UVa who was depicted as an ineffective contact for students seeking guidance after filing sexual misconduct complaints. According to a court deposition, the associate dean is arguing that Erdely’s piece caused her “significant embarrassment, humiliation, mental suffering and emotional distress,” for which she is seeking $7.85 million in damages.

In arguing Erdely’s lack of journalistic integrity, the plaintiff claims that the reporter did not corroborate Jackie’s story with other significant, involved parties – including the young woman’s mother, her assailants, or Eramo herself – before the article’s publication and the author’s various media appearances thereafter. Additionally, Eramo’s attorneys assert that there was evidence suggesting Jackie’s dubious credibility from the start and that Erdely had actively ignored any such evidence, especially that which contradicted the reporter’s intentions for the final piece.

However, in a court opinion dated September 22nd, Judge Glen Conrad’s categorization of Eramo as a “limited-purpose public figure” raised the bar for successfully proving defamation.

This public figure classification comes after Eramo’s multiple appearances on local media outlets like WUVA News and The Cavalier Dailyduring her time as an administrator, as well as her designation as “an expert in all issues of sexual assault” by the office of Allen Groves, the University’s Dean of Students. As a public figure and “the face” of the University on matters of sexual violence, Eramo must meet a higher threshold than that of a private citizen in substantiating her claims of defamation.

Eramo must now prove that there was “actual malice” at play when Erdely penned the piece in Rolling Stone. This would force her to prove that the magazine, author, and publisher either intentionally purporting false information to be reality, or simply exhibited a “reckless disregard” for the truth.

The defendants are allegedly citing the magazine’s April 5 retraction of “A Rape on Campus” as recognition of factual errors within the article that, according to Cville Weekly, do not indicate malicious intent but rather action taken “within hours when it became apparent there were questions.”

The case is set to go to trial before a jury on October 17.


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