Privileged to privacy?: As Rolling Stone lawsuits continue, ‘Jackie’ remains unnamed

Jackie says Nicole Eramo’s attorneys shouldn’t get to depose her because of her “fragile” state as a sexual assault victim. Jackie says Nicole Eramo’s attorneys shouldn’t get to depose her because of her “fragile” state as a sexual assault victim.

In the aftermath of a discredited Rolling Stone story about a gang rape that shook UVA students and faculty and spawned three lawsuits against the magazine and the author of the article, the woman at the center of the controversy, “Jackie,” remains unnamed in the media and in legal documents.

University of Virginia Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo, who says the piece cast her as the “chief villain” of the story and accused her of discouraging sexual assault victims from reporting rape, filed a $7.5 million defamation suit against Rolling Stone and reporter Sabrina Erdely in May, and has reportedly waited four months for Jackie, the alleged victim of the story, to turn over communications records.

Eramo’s lawyers requested access to several of Jackie’s communications in July, including all of those that make reference to herself as a sexual assault victim at UVA, as well as her correspondence with Rolling Stone and Erdely. After Jackie didn’t comply, Eramo filed a motion to compel her to turn over the communications.

In a hearing over the motion held in Alexandria December 4, the judge deferred a decision on the motion until it could be taken up in Charlottesville by the presiding judge on the case. Jackie’s lawyer, Palma Pustilnik, fought disclosing this information, saying that turning over these communications would be a breach of her client’s privacy. She is also filing a motion opposing the subpoena on the grounds that Jackie was not a named party in the lawsuit.

According to legal expert David Heilberg, though, the subpoena is valid whether Jackie is a party in the lawsuit. “Any third party that has relevant records to the case, you can get,” he says. Heilberg also disagrees with Pustilnik’s claim to privacy, saying neither Jackie nor Erdely has the right to privacy where this information is concerned.

“I don’t think there’s any claim to privacy in a civil suit of this kind,” Heilberg says. “Neither right to privacy nor journalistic privilege are strong enough to keep [Eramo’s lawyers] from getting the information they need.”

Communications between Jackie and her lawyer are private, says Heilberg. However, because the requested communications are primarily between Jackie and the magazine, this same privacy does not apply. “With a reporter,” he explains, “there is no such privilege.”

In a case with so many claiming harm from Jackie’s account, the question remains why she continues to go unnamed in legal procedures and the media. Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a media ethics expert, says it is a “tradition” of media organizations to leave out the names of sexual assault victims whether their account has been proven accurate.

“The standards that courts use in determining guilt or innocence are not the same as finding out whether or not someone was treated to degrading behavior,” Wasserman explains. “Behavior that, if her name was revealed, she may receive harm or shame from.”

Rolling Stone’s failure to adequately scrutinize Jackie’s allegations was “the most egregious misconduct” in the case, not Jackie’s partial or complete fabrication of the events, says Wasserman.

“In a perverse way, Rolling Stone was the enabler of this,” Wasserman says. “If they had done their job, we wouldn’t be having this conversation of whether or not to expose the woman.”

While from a legal standpoint Wasserman believes there is not much reason to conceal Jackie’s identity, especially considering the misinformation she gave to Rolling Stone, he raises the question of what purpose exposing her would serve.

“There is a context here; we don’t really know how much of what this woman told the reporter was true,” Wasserman says. “But there’s something about it that suggests that this is a very troubled person who’s probably been victimized at some point who stands to be harmed, perhaps needlessly, by exposure.”

C-VILLE Weekly has chosen not to release Jackie’s name at this time because we do not name victims of sexual assault.