Eramo takes stand in Rolling Stone defamation suit

Attorneys deliver opening statements

nseramocourtesyuniversityofva

Eramo is suing over her depiction in the now-debunked Rolling Stone article, "A Rape On Campus." She claims she was falsely depicted in the article as indifferent towards Jackie’s case. 

Courtesy University of Virginia

Former University Dean Nicole Eramo took the stand Tuesday as the first witness in her $7.85 million defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine, Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Wenner Media, Inc. Erdely was present in court, but is not yet slated to speak before the jury.

“This case is about a journalistic failure,” attorney Tom Clare said during the Eramo team’s opening statement.

Eramo claims she was defamed in “A Rape On Campus,” an article Rolling Stone published in November 2014 detailing an alleged gang rape of a first-year student named Jackie at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in 2012.

A Charlottesville Police Department investigation found Jackie’s claims to be unsubstantiated, and a Columbia Journalism Review analysis of the article found flaws in writer Sabrina Erdely’s reporting, such as failure to reach out to three of Jackie’s friends mentioned in Rolling Stone’s article.

Eramo claims the article — which Rolling Stone retracted in April 2015 — falsely depicted her as indifferent toward survivors of sexual assault.

Eramo was an associate dean in the Office of the Dean of Students in the events depicted in the article, but she has since moved into the position of executive director of assessment and planning in the office of the Vice President & Chief Student Affairs Officer.

Opening statements

Clare said in his opening statement that despite being depicted as uncaring towards Jackie, Eramo arranged meetings between Jackie and police. He said Rolling Stone knew about these meetings — and included a reference to them in an early draft — but did not include any reference to them in the published article.

Eramo first met Jackie in May 2013 and connected her with sexual assault resources, Clare said.

“From the very first meeting, Nicole urged Jackie to report her assault,” Clare said.

Clare also argued Rolling Stone did not check key facts of Jackie’s story and said the magazine pushed Jackie to participate in the story, only to blame her once once the story starting falling apart after its publication.

Eramo’s lawyer also noted a photoshopped image of Eramo featured alongside the article, which he said was the only image of a person that appeared in the print edition of the article.

Attorney Scott Sexton defended the magazine’s depiction of Eramo in the opening statement for Rolling Stone, Erdely and publisher Wenner Media.

“She was the face of the University,” Sexton said, noting Eramo’s public role as chair of the University’s Sexual Misconduct Board. “Naturally, she was mentioned in the article.”

Sexton reminded members of the jury that a defamation case requires proof of actual malice in writing and publishing the article.

“[Actual malice] just means the person who’s accused … they have to make the statement knowing it to be false in their mind,” he said.

Sexton argued Erdely and Rolling Stone thoroughly believed Jackie’s claims until after the article was published.

He also responded to Clare’s claim that Rolling Stone knew Eramo encouraged Jackie to report her alleged gang rape through meetings with police.

Sexton said official reports from meetings between Jackie, Eramo and police in the spring of 2014 indicated the meetings were about an incident in which Jackie claimed fraternity brothers threw a bottle at her on the Corner in April 2014 in response to criticisms she had made of Phi Kappa Psi and the Sigma Phi Society, or SERP.

Jackie’s alleged gang rape was not mentioned in the reports, so Rolling Stone would not have deduced Jackie had spoken with law enforcement about the assault, Sexton said.

Sexton admitted the magazine’s trust in Jackie’s story was “misplaced,” echoing the language former Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana used in his initial apology for the story. However, Sexton said the case is not about the validity of Jackie’s story, but rather how Rolling Stone and Erdely believed her story to be true and promptly responded to concerns when Jackie gave them reason to doubt their article.

Eramo takes the stand

Eramo served as the plaintiff’s first witness in the case after the opening statements.

She explained she met Jackie through a reference from Jackie’s academic dean, who expressed concern over academic difficulties Jackie experienced throughout her first year at the University.

Eramo documented her meetings with Jackie in a database, of which Clare presented written accounts to the court.

Eramo explained how she encouraged Jackie to come forward and report her assault to the police as she came to learn more details about Jackie’s alleged gang rape, especially in light of the premeditated nature of the alleged crime and other alleged survivors Jackie claimed to know.

Jackie declined to report both the alleged rape and bottle incident to the police, Eramo said.

Eramo said Jackie told her about the Rolling Stone article in September 2014, but became anxious about the article throughout the magazine’s fact checking process.

“She came in very distraught and upset,” Eramo said, describing a meeting with Jackie in early November of that year. Eramo said Jackie was concerned she was going to be misquoted and misrepresented.

When Clare asked about her involvement in the article, Eramo said she originally agreed to an interview, under the impression the article would concern advocacy and culture on Grounds.

The University had been “working on that issue head-on,” Eramo said.

Eventually, University Communications advised Eramo against doing the interview after doing background research on Erdely and believing she would ask about specific student cases, Eramo said.

Instead, Erdely interviewed University President Teresa Sullivan, Susan Davis, associate vice president of student affairs, and University spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn.

Eramo said beyond Erdely’s interview request, she had no other contact with anyone from Rolling Stone before the article’s publication.

Clare specifically asked Eramo if anyone had contacted her to verify a quote she had allegedly said in a meeting with Jackie, in which she allegedly told her, “Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”

Eramo said she had never said this quote, nor had she ever referred to the University as “the rape school.”

Clare asked Eramo about her reactions to the article’s depiction of her and the University. She said she was particularly unhappy about how Erdely presented the women’s group One Less, saying the article made them seem helpless rather than empowered.

Eramo also reacted to the highly edited photo of herself at a mock trial event during Take Back the Night, which was included in Erdely’s article.

“I thought it made me look like the devil,” Eramo said about the article’s doctored photo in court.

Eramo’s testimony also outlined how her professional life had changed in the aftermath of the article. The day of its publication, she relinquished her records of meetings with students to her colleagues.

Eramo was later moved into a temporary position to start up a new University office regarding the University’s new sexual assault policy. Afterwards, she was appointed to her current position in the office of the Vice President & Student Affairs Officer, which does not have her on track to become a dean of students like her previous position, nor does it have the student engagement aspect she enjoyed before.

“It was really special to me to have the dean of students title,” Eramo said.

Eramo choked up as she read an open letter published in The Cavalier Daily written by students advocating for her. In a letter attributed to Jackie, she said Eramo had saved her life.

“For someone to say I saved her life, that’s pretty amazing,” Eramo said. “It might have saved my life, honestly.”

Cross-examination began with Elizabeth McNamara, the attorney defending Rolling Stone.

McNamara asked Eramo about her familiarity with University policies regarding administration response to sexual assault.

Eramo said she always acted “with care and concern” in meetings with students.

McNamara continued the cross-examination by asking Eramo about her meetings with Jackie, including one after the incident on the Corner when Jackie claimed a bottle was thrown at her. In her meeting with Eramo, Jackie said she believed the assailants were members of Phi Kappa Psi and SERP, since she had recently criticized them.

Jackie also revealed in her meeting that she thought her sexual assault had happened at Phi Psi, a detail she had not previously shared with Eramo.

Eramo said ultimately her goal in the lawsuit was to hold Rolling Stone accountable for its actions. She said the magazine molded her into what they needed to fit its narrative without regard for the consequences on her life and career.

“I want to restore my reputation as best I can,” she said in court. “I want to show the real impact on a human being’s life.”

Cross-examination is expected to continue in court Wednesday.

related stories