Frat brothers’ defamation case thrown out

Phi Kappa Psi. File photo Phi Kappa Psi. File photo

A New York federal judge dismissed a defamation lawsuit on June 29 filed by three members of Phi Kappa Psi against Rolling Stone and writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely for the now-discredited 2014 story, “A Rape on Campus.”

“Their defamation claims are directed toward a report about events that simply did not happen,” wrote U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel in his decision.

George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler were UVA students in 2012, when the alleged rape occurred, although a Charlottesville Police investigation later determined no evidence the gang rape described in Erdely’s article ever took place. None of the plaintiffs were identified by name, but they claim that the article’s references to the attackers inadvertently involved them—even though they also claim that the same attackers were invented by “Jackie.”

The three fraternity members said the story could have prompted friends, family and peers to erroneously deduce that they were participants in the gang rape.

Elias said it could be inferred from the description of the room where the purported rape occurred that it was the room he lived in for two years and the only one accessible at the top of the stairs without an electronic keypad lock.

“Now, climbing the frat-house stairs with Drew, Jackie felt excited,” said the article. “Drew ushered Jackie into a bedroom, shutting the door behind them.”

Castel disagreed, and said that while Elias had one of several bedrooms on the second floor, the article did not identify him.

Fowler’s qualms arose with the story’s insinuations that the alleged gang rape was a requirement for initiation with its statements such as, “Don’t you want to be a brother?” and “We all had to do it, so you do, too.” As the fraternity’s rush chair, he alleged the story directly implies that he was the maestro behind the heinous acts described.

Fowler further claims that as an avid swimmer who frequented UVA’s Aquatic Center, readers would automatically associate him as one of the rape’s perpetrators.

Judge Castel didn’t buy those claims either, and said Fowler relied on an interpretation at odds with the surrounding context created by the article and said a “strained or artificial construction” could not be made defamatory.

“Essentially, real people don’t have a right to sue when someone makes up fictitious people that in some way resembles them,” says legal expert David Heilberg.

Hadford, a 2013 UVA graduate, continued to live on Grounds for 15 months after graduation and frequently rode his bike between his residence and his job at UVA Medical Center’s emergency department. According to Jackie, former associate dean Nicole Eramo claimed all of Jackie’s perpetrators had graduated, yet, Jackie had seen one riding his bicycle that same day she talked to Eramo.

“Friends, family, and acquaintances of Hadford would have made the connection that Hadford must have been the person who Jackie saw riding his bike on campus,” he claimed in his suit. The judge denied this allegation because the article failed to provide additional details of the bike rider.

This is one of three cases that Rolling Stone and Erdely faces. Phi Kappa Psi also filed a defamation suit, and another hearing in Eramo’s lawsuit is scheduled August 12 in Roanoke.