More than three years after Rolling Stone published the most significant false accusation of rape since the Duke Lacrosse hoax, the saga is officially over for the magazine.
That’s right, Rolling Stone is only now able to put this travesty behind them — at least legally. The magazine reached a final settlement in late December with the members of the fraternity that were falsely maligned in the story. The details have not been disclosed, but at least two members of the fraternity will be the beneficiary of the settlement. Three fraternity members – George Elias IV, Ross Fowler and Stephen Hadford alleged there was enough information in the article to identify them as some of the potential rapists in the story.
The original story was told by a young woman named Jackie Coakley — identified only as “Jackie” in the article — who said she was taken on a date by a handsome member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia, and then led back to the fraternity house where several other members of the fraternity violently gang-raped her on top of a broken glass table.
The three named brothers filed their lawsuit in July 2015, seven months after the article was published. They each claimed they were harassed by family, friends, and coworkers as potential rapists in the months following publication. A year later, a judge dismissed their lawsuit, claiming “the article’s details about the attackers are too vague and remote from the plaintiffs’ circumstances to be ‘of and concerning’ them.”
Bizarrely, U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel in Manhattan, who dismissed the lawsuit, also wrote: “Their defamation claims are directed toward a report about events that simply did not happen.” Yes, Castel, that is how defamation works.
The 2nd Circuit reversed Castel’s decision in September 2017, after Rolling Stone had reached settlements on two other lawsuits brought in the wake of the infamous article. The federal appellate circuit stated readers “could plausibly conclude that many or all fraternity members participated in alleged gang rape as an initiation ritual and all members knowingly turned a blind eye to the brutal crimes.” Rolling Stone and the fraternity members reached a settlement three months later.
The first settlement the magazine had to pay was to former UVA dean Nicole Eramo, who was portrayed as the “chief villain” in the story and as someone who was callous and indifferent to rape accusations from students. She filed a lawsuit in May 2015, and the suit eventually went to trial. During the trial, it was revealed that Rolling Stone removed information that cast Eramo in a favorable light.
Rolling Stone, its publisher Jann Wenner, and the article’s author Sabrina Rubin Erdely, were all found liable for defamation in November 2016. Eramo was awarded $3 million in damages. The two sides settled in April 2017 for an undisclosed amount.
Then in June 2017, the magazine settled with the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity for $1.65 million. The fraternity said it would give “a significant portion” to victims’ advocacy groups.
Those who were wronged by the article have received compensation for their suffering, but only Rolling Stone has been punished for its role in the fake story. Will Dana, who was the managing editor of the magazine at the time the false story was published, left the magazine in 2015, but was not fired. Publisher Jann Wenner agreed to sell his share of the magazine in 2017, meaning he would walk away with millions. Erdely has not written anything since and appears to still be underground. In a strange bit of irony, the last thing she ever tweeted was a reply to ProPublica reporter Pamela Colloff about correcting a tweet to label Erdely as a “journalist,” instead of simply a “woman.”
Shortly after this tweet, the article began to fall apart. She hadn’t even done the most basic journalism, like confirming that the man Coakley went on a date with actually existed (he did not). In fact, Jackie made him up in an elaborate attempt to win the affections of another student.
The magazine itself was punished with a blow to its credibility and the settlements. But, just as in the Duke Lacrosse case, many of the people who enabled the false accusation and unfairly deemed the fraternity as guilty from the start were unharmed by the article. UVA President Teresa Sullivan still has her job, even though she prematurely punished the entire Greek system at the university in the wake of the article.
Sullivan extended a voluntary ban on social activities for months after the article was punished, and required organizations to sign new agreements in order to resume such activities. She never apologized for her behavior and rush to judgement.
And Coakley, the woman who made up the story that led to tarnished reputations of her alma mater and an innocent fraternity, never saw any sort of punishment except for lies being debunked in the national media. UVA never punished her for lying, and she faced no legal consequences.
Clearly, Coakley was an emotionally disturbed individual, and many shy away from taking on someone like that even if they did hurt other people (even though we could claim that anyone who commits a heinous crime is also disturbed). At the same time, she was enabled by adults who should have known better, but instead enabled her, apparently because they couldn’t believe someone would lie about something so horrific.