Rolling Stone Faces Long Road to Trial on Campus-Rape Article

Shortly after running its article “A Rape on Campus” in this Dec. 4, 2014, issue, Rolling Stone was forced to issue a retraction. (Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) – A federal judge pushed for a settlement Wednesday while taking stock of defamation claims over a now-retracted Rolling Stone article on campus rape culture.

The afternoon status conference before U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel in Manhattan came five weeks after a Second Circuit reversal brought new life to the claims by three former members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia.

Castel gave the parties six months to complete discovery, a window he described as “generous,” saying he did not anticipate any extension beyond the April 27, 2018, deadline.

Discovery is set to include deposition transcripts and trial testimony that the Rolling Stone defendants collected while fighting two other lawsuits related to the article, one by former University of Virginia associate dean Nicole Eramo, the other by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

Rolling Stone published the 9,000-word screed from writer Sabrina Erdely in late 2014, recounting the supposed gang rape of a University of Virginia student identified only as Jackie.

After Charlottesville police found Jackie’s claims unsubstantiated, a number of news organizations began to poke holes in Erdely’s work, and Rolling Stone quickly retracted the piece. In addition to earning a spot in the Columbia Journalism Review’s list of “The Worst Journalism of 2014,” the article was criticized by the Poynter Institute as the “Error of the Year” in journalism.

Erdely never explicitly identified the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity members Jackie accused of attacking her, but George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler claimed in a federal complaint that the article offered enough clues to tarnish their reputations.

Elias IV, Hadford and Fowler were represented at Wednesday’s status conference by Alan and Evan Frank, a father-and-son attorney duo based out of Pennsylvania.

Alan Frank, the elder of the two, said he looked forward to moving ahead toward trial after the Second Circuit’s thoughtful reversal.

The attorney argued in Wednesday’s settlement conference that a number of confidentiality agreements were “adding complexity” to the discovery process.

Elizabeth McNamara from Davis Wright Tremaine represents the Rolling Stone defendants.

Though she declined to grant an interview after the conference, McNamara told the court today that the Rolling Stone defendants had a “massive amount of material” that they were willing to provide in discovery but have tried to withhold “an enormous volume of third-party” documents, limiting discovery to only include publicly available materials not covered by protective orders.

Judge Castel hinted that if the parties aim to settle, the time to start that process would be “up front.”

Phi Kappa Psi settled its suit against Rolling Stone for a reported $1.65 million in June 2017.

Eramo, the former UVA dean, meanwhile took her claims to trial, winning $3 million in damages.

Castel scheduled a May 18, 2018, hearing for Rolling Stone and its fraternity adversaries to return to court after completion of discovery.

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