Libel Claims Against Rolling Stone Thrown Out

     (CN) — A federal judge dismissed defamation claims against Rolling Stone, finding that a now-discredited 2014 expose on campus rape didn’t specifically identify three fraternity brothers who sued the magazine.
     Former University of Virginia students George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler sued Rolling Stone and writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely last summer, claiming the article “A Rape on Campus” was reckless, subjected them to ongoing humiliation and harassment without cause, and has led them to avoid association with their fraternity.
     The article associated the three Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers with an alleged attack on another UVA student. It purported to tell the story of the vicious gang rape of a student, identified only as Jackie, during a frat party.
     The three men say that in the immediate aftermath of the article’s December 2014 publication, they were pilloried by news organizations and blogs that accused them of being rapists.
     Rolling Stone later retracted the article and apologized for it, after a number of news organizations began to poke holes in the magazine’s claims and Erdely’s work. The Columbia Journalism Review included the piece in its review of the “The Worst Journalism of 2014,” and the Poynter Institute called it the “Error of the Year” in journalism.
     On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel granted Rolling Stone’s motion to dismiss Elias, Hadford and Fowler’s case.
     “The article’s details about the attackers are too vague and remote from the plaintiffs’ circumstances to be ‘of and concerning’ them,” the judge wrote in 23-page opinion.
     Castel rejected Elias’ claim that the article identified his bedroom, finding that the story lacked details “that plausibly distinguishes Elias’s bedroom from the several others on the second floor, even to those who knew extrinsic facts about the layout of the fraternity house.”
     The judge said Fowler’s status as an avid swimmer does not mean the article identified him by saying Jackie met a frat member when they were “working lifeguard shifts together at the university pool.”
     “Fowler does not allege that he was a lifeguard – just that he often swam at the pool, sometimes as much as ‘several times per week’ and at other times ‘every other week,'” Castel wrote.
     Similarly, the fact that Hadford often rode his bike around campus isn’t enough to support a defamation claim based on the article’s mention of Jackie seeing one frat member riding a bike, according to Castel’s ruling.
     “The article contains no additional, identifying details concerning the individual who rode his bike around campus. Based on the complaint and the contents of the article, there is no basis from which Hadford could be distinguished from any other adult male riding his bike on the UVA campus,” the judge wrote.
     Castel also rejected other arguments from the plaintiffs related to lengthy excerpts from the article, an Erdely podcast interview, and small-group defamation.

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