University Professor urges Rolling Stone lawsuit
Says fraternities have strong legal grounds
Law School Prof. Robert F. Turner and his son Thomas Turner, a third-year Batten School student, released an article last month in the Richmond Times Dispatch titled, “It’s time for a U.Va. apology.” In it, they argue Rolling Stone inappropriately handled its investigative report of University Greek Life and an alleged sexual assault described in the November article, “A Rape on Campus.”
Since the article’s publication, Robert Turner has said the University and its Phi Kappa Psi fraternity chapter may have grounds to sue Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely — the article’s author.
Robert Turner said the standard for a lawsuit against Rolling Stone could be the Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a case considering an advertisement run in the New York Times which incorrectly accused Alabama police of making seven arrests of Martin Luther King, Jr, among other claims. The case went in the favor of the Times and established actual malice, a principle which allows media sources to legally make false claims so long as they do not do so knowingly.
Any lawsuit against Rolling Stone, as filed by Phi Kappa Psi or any other fraternity with a University chapter, would likely need to demonstrate that Rolling Stone knowingly published untrue information which damaged the fraternity chapter and its members.
Third-year College student Stephen Scipione, University Phi Kappa Psi Chapter President, said his fraternity is still considering whether to pursue legal action.
“We haven’t taken anything off the table,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer, and we haven’t hired a lawyer. We have advisors who are lawyers by trade, but we have not hired a lawyer as a chapter to represent us moving forward.”
Scipione said they will consider all of their options after rush.
“But it is something that as we finish through rush and we get back into the routine and we have some free time that we are going to consider all of our options,” he said. “We would need the full support of our housing corporation, our chapter and our nationals with any decision that we make.”
However, many from within the University community — some affiliated with Greek life, others not — have either come out in support of a lawsuit against Rolling Stone or voiced confidence in a case against the magazine or Erdely.
One member of the Inter-Fraternity Council, who wished to remain anonymous, said he felt the University chapter has a particularly strong case because the damage caused by Rolling Stone focused heavily on its individual members.
“I think all those guys went through hell,” he said. “In quantifiable ways, their house suffered material damages and they had to stay in a hotel. They also suffered in less tangible ways, like emotional distress.”
The IFC member said the Charlottesville Police Department determination that the alleged sexual assault described in the article did not occur at Phi Kappa Psi further strengthened any potential case.
Robert Turner said he, too, believed Phi Kappa Psi may have a case against Rolling Stone because they had been clearly defamed, discredited with language his son described as libelous.
“Characterizing U.Va. as 'the rape school’ with a ‘culture of sexual violence’ — and presenting as fact a horrendous gang rape without any effort to check the key facts — would likely constitute legal defamation,” Thomas Turner said in an email. “And reporting that Phi Kappa Psi instructed pledges to gang-rape a fellow student as part of its initiation policy would certainly seem like libel to me.”
Robert Turner said it would be easy to prove that the article has damaged the reputation of the University, citing friends who have told him they will not send their daughters to the University, as well as applicants who have reconsidered or rescinded their applications. He also said he felt it would be easy to demonstrate Rolling Stone’s carelessness in fact checking.
“I don’t think it would be hard at all to show reckless disregard for the facts,” Robert Turner said. “Columbia Journalism Review identified that their story is the worst piece of journalism in the entire year.”
Immediately following the publication of the Turners’ article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Thomas Turner said University President Teresa Sullivan invited them to her house to discuss the issue. He said Sullivan defended the University's suspension of Greek life by saying it was part of a larger investigation into the Greek system.
“She emphasized that the decision to suspend Greek activities until the start of the spring term was connected to a long-term examination of alcohol use issues at fraternities rather than a specific response to the Rolling Stone article,” Thomas Turner said.
He said Sullivan told them the University was ultimately unable to sue the magazine. All the same, Thomas Turner said any lawsuit against Rolling Stone or Erdely surrounding their portrayal of the University would help to clarify the misinterpretations about the University and the Greek system in general caused by the article.
“Such behavior should not be tolerated, and suing both the magazine and the reporter might help send a signal to other journalists who might be considering abandoning all of the basic rules about verifying facts and hearing both sides of a story to rethink their plans,” Thomas Turner said. “A victory might also help inform the public that the story was not true in many of its key assertions.”
Fourth-year College student Robert Enders, member of the University Phi Delta Theta chapter, agreed, saying he thought a lawsuit was necessary to encourage sounder journalism.
“I do believe legal action should be taken against at least one of those parties involved,” Enders said in an email. “I am not familiar with the extent that legal action could be taken, but believe it is necessary to prevent this sort of situation happening again. Journalism, the proper way of it being done, should not allow these situations to arise.”
Robert Turner said it could be a matter of weeks or a matter of years before a lawsuit, depending on whether a settlement is offered. As for whether University student Jackie — the protagonist and main source for the Rolling Stone article — could be sued, Turner said the issue is uncertain.
“What I don’t know is whether the newspaper reporter fabricated the quotes or if Jackie actually said that,” he said. “If they showed that Jackie did make the accusations, then I think she could be sued or drawn up on an honor charge.”
The University declined to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit or its potential involvement should one arise.