MANHATTAN (CN) — Rolling Stone retracted its article “A Rape on Campus” soon after publication, but an attorney told the Second Circuit on Thursday his clients had already been hounded by dozens of reporters by that point.
“We think the immediacy occurred because of the internet,” attorney Alan Lee Frank told a three-judge panel. “We live in a different age.”
Published on Nov. 19, 2014, Sabrina Erdely’s article for Rolling Stone told the story of a woman identified only as Jackie, who said she had been gang-raped by members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia.
After Charlottesville police found Jackie’s claims unsubstantiated, however, scrutiny by other media organizations uncovered other problems with the narrative. Rolling Stone retracted the article in April 2015, but the magazine is still experiencing aftershocks related to the piece two years later.
Though Rolling Stone entered into a $3 million settlement earlier this month with Nicole Eramo, an associate dean at UVA who had been forced to resign in the wake of the scandal, a $25 million lawsuit from Phi Kappa Psi remains pending.
Depending on how the Second Circuit rules after Thursday’s hearing in Manhattan, the magazine could also face a separate court battle with three of the fraternity’s individual former members.
Rolling Stone never identified any of Jackie’s supposed attackers by name, but George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler claimed in a 2015 complaint that the article offered enough clues to point readers in their direction.
A federal judge in Manhattan dismissed that case last year, calling the details about Jackie’s attackers “too vague and remote from the plaintiffs’ circumstances.”
Pushing for a reversal Thursday, attorney Frank that Phi Kappa Psi had 203 members on the university’s campus at the time of the supposed rape in 2012. Only 31 of them had been juniors and seniors.
In the “fishbowl of that community,” Frank said, it did not take too long for readers to glean identifying details — marking Hadford as the frat brother seen regularly riding his bike on the university campus, and Elias as the student who lived at the top of the second floor.
Jackie’s account describes a third-year student named “Drew” as encouraging seven rapists, but U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest noted that several people fit this character’s description.
Sitting by designation from the Southern District of New York, Forrest told Frank that “Drew is a composite of a number of your clients.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes grilled the lawyer on what his clients faced in the wake of the article.
“At minimum, these people were accused nationally of participating in a gang rape,” Frank replied.
Hadford blames the episode for his later rejection from medical school, and all three claim that a Google search of their names links them to a rape scandal.
Rolling Stone’s attorney Elizabeth Anne McNamara, from the firm Davis Wright Tremaine, disputed this.
“There have not been, nor does this record contain, any articles mentioning these individuals that includes them as the rapists of Jackie,” she said.
Indeed, as of Thursday afternoon, Google searches of Elias and Hadford’s name largely turned up coverage of their defamation lawsuits, and Fowler’s name largely pulls up unrelated links.
Cabranes questioned the relevance of McNamara’s point that all three of the students had graduated by the time of the article’s publication.
The panel, rounded out by U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier, has reserved decision on the case. Attorney Frank told reporters outside the courtroom that his clients have been building back their lives.
Hadford is about to graduate from medical school, and Elias now works in the investment industry, he said.
Rolling Stone has been hard at work as well after Columbia Journalism Review labeled it the winner of the “media-fail sweepstakes,” and the Poynter Institute crowned it for error of the year.
Rolling Stone owner Jann Wenner sold 49 percent of the company to BandLab Technologies, Bloomberg reported in September. The Singapore-based digital music publication is owned by a billionaire’s son.