Rolling Stone magazine recently settled a defamation lawsuit over their falsely reported article about a gang rape at UVA’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The $1.65 million settlement seems like a win/win for the two parties. It’s hardly surprising that Rolling Stone settled. If the magazine couldn’t prevail against Dean Nicole Eramo, it certainly faced a loss against the people Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article falsely deemed monstrous rapists. For the fraternity, a settlement now allows the process to be brought to a close and avoids lengthy litigation.
There was, however, one striking aspect of the settlement. In a statement released to the Washington Post, Brian Ellis, a spokesperson for the fraternity, revealed that “the chapter looks forward to donating a significant portion of its settlement proceeds to organizations that provide sexual assault awareness education, prevention, training and victim counseling services on college campuses.”
This struck me as a very odd decision, given the specifics of this case (the students were wrongly accused, and these “organizations” joined the crusade against them). It would be as if, after the Duke lacrosse case, the wrongfully accused students would have ignored the Innocence Project (with which they have, in fact, been actively involved), and instead focused on raising funds for the North Carolina NAACP. That organization might well do good work—but its sole role in the lacrosse case was to harm the students.
So, I asked Ellis if the statement meant that the fraternity would not be donating to organizations that promoted campus due process (such as FIRE) or that advocated on behalf of the wrongfully accused (such as the Innocence Project)—issues that seemed more relevant given the experience of the fraternity members. His response: “They just reached a settlement, so the fraternity has not reached the stage of determining how it will allocate the funds. The statement is a demonstration of their commitment to helping to address the issue on the UVA campus.”
Of course, I hadn’t asked for the how the funds would be allocated; I only had wanted to know which type of groups would receive settlement funds. Given that Ellis was able to identify three types of groups to the Post—sexual assault awareness education, prevention training, and victim counseling services—it’s hard to interpret his statement as anything other than an admission that no settlement money will go to advocates of due process or the falsely accused.
Moreover, at least with regards to UVA, the primary “issue” associated with this case was how the UVA administration, much of its faculty, the leadership of its campus newspaper, and a variety of student groups (including the student government) rushed to judgment when facing heinous allegations against their students—and then, once the case collapsed, acted as if the allegations were true anyway.
Examples included a high-ranking figure at the campus newspaper chastising the national media for doing too much fact-checking and the student government (after the story had been discredited) urging that the state of Virginia learn from the case and change state law to make all rape trials secret. (Stuart and I cover these examples, and many others, in the final chapter of our book.)
Indeed, it seems likely that Rolling Stone would never have targeted Phi Kappa Psi but for the actions of a UVA employee, Emily Renda—someone hired, to borrow Ellis’ words, to address “sexual assault awareness education, prevention training, and victim counseling services on” UVA’s campus. It was Renda who first publicized Jackie’s tale (in testimony to Congress that does not appear to have been retracted), and who then passed on information about Jackie to Erdely.
So, in the end, the wrongfully accused fraternity members have promised to give a portion of their settlement money to the very type of organizations that produced the Renda hire. Quite remarkable.
The settlement money, of course, is Phi Kappa Psi’s; they can donate it to whatever groups they wish. But the fact that a group that was defamed as rapists would turn around and give money to the type of groups that amplified the defamation they experienced speaks volumes as to the frenzied atmosphere on campus today.