The national Phi Kappa Psi organization was in court last week seeking to quash subpoenas from Rolling Stone, which contends both the national and UVA chapter of the fraternity knew there were “factual discrepancies” in Jackie’s story of a gang rape before the magazine published its now infamous “A Rape on Campus,” but kept quiet about those discrepancies to both Rolling Stone and to UVA then-associate dean Nicole Eramo.
Had the fraternity spoken up, the article “never would have been published,” said Rolling Stone in a court document.
The local Phi Kappa Psi chapter, scene of Jackie’s tale of a now-discredited alleged gang rape, is suing Rolling Stone for $25 million, the third defamation case stemming from the November 19, 2014, article.
Last fall, a jury awarded Eramo $3 million, a verdict Rolling Stone is trying to get set aside. And a suit filed by three fraternity brothers was thrown out.
At the April 5 hearing, the attorney for the national Phi Kappa Psi organization argued it was a separate legal entity from the local chapter. Rolling Stone’s subpoenas seeking information from all 99 chapters was “absolutely invasive” and “absolutely unnecessary,” said attorney Dirk McClanahan. “They don’t need to hunt down our dirty laundry.”
While the local chapter will produce the documents requested, he said, “The guys in Des Moines who are busted for hazing or drinking are categorically irrelevant.”
Rolling Stone attorney Jonathon Fazzola disagreed and said embarrassing members affect both the national organization and chapters throughout the country. “They’re inextricably linked,” he said.
Two months before the Rolling Stone story was published, said Fazzola, the national organization was contacted by UVA with Jackie’s allegations. It sent someone to the chapter to investigate, and prepared talking points to the media and training sessions—and consulted attorneys about libel.
Fazzola further argued that Phi Psi initially found Jackie’s allegations plausible because “it knows its own culture” and that its investigation “could be an admission it knows its own reputation.”
While Judge Richard Moore found the latter “a stretch,” he acknowledged Rolling Stone’s efforts. “If they can show [Phi Kappa Psi] already had a lousy reputation,” the article “can’t hurt it,” he said.
Moore also mentioned 2006, the year Liz Seccuro saw charges brought against Phi Psi member William Beebe for a 1984 rape at the UVA chapter. His involvement came to light when he wrote an apology letter to her 21 years later as part of a 12-step program. Beebe was convicted and served 18 months in prison.
‘It’s relevant that there have been sexual assault allegations at chapters,” said Rolling Stone attorney Liz McNamara, who defended the magazine in last fall’s federal court trial.
Rolling Stone also argued that the national fraternity did not have standing to quash the subpoenas because it was not a party in the suit, pointing out that its insurer, Holmes Murphy & Associates, had not objected to the discovery requests.
McClanahan maintained that the national org “is a victim here, too,” and that Rolling Stone had an agenda against all fraternities. He said the magazine’s 29 subpoenas are “unduly burdensome” and an attempt to “terrorize” the chapters.
“They’re saying, ‘We believe Phi Kappa Psi could be institutionalizing rape and we want to explore that further,’” said McClanahan. “What we’re getting is blind conjecture.”
Judge Moore took a break to read the subpoenas. Upon his return, he said, “I’m just not persuaded most of what’s asked for is relevant. Most are too broad.”
He quashed 13 of Rolling Stone’s 29 subpoenas.
After the hearing, Rolling Stone seemed undeterred by the denials.
“The local fraternity here is seeking a whopping $25 million in damages,” said McNamara in an email. ”Clearly their reputation is intertwined with the national reputation of Phi Kappa Psi.” PKP national has been very involved from the outset, she said, “and we believe it’s appropriate to get discovery from the national organization, and the judge agreed with us on that point.”
The case is scheduled for a 10-day jury trial starting October 23.