The Curious Provisions of the Rolling Stone Settlement

Rolling Stone Rape Hoax

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.

Rolling Stone Rape Hoax
Rolling Stone Rape Hoax

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.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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10 thoughts on “The Curious Provisions of the Rolling Stone Settlement

  1. Again, you guys need someone who knows how to use a word processor, edit articles, and transfer them into HTML. This

    “(Stuart and I cover these examples, and many others, in the final chapter of”

    occurs twice. This has happened many times before on this site.

  2. President Sullivan did a better job protecting University of Virginia’s campus from an imaginary attack than she did protecting it against a real one, namely the damaging of the fraternity’s house. In a number of ways the trends from Duke (2006-07) to Virginia (2014-15) were retrograde.

  3. “The settlement money, of course, is Phi Kappa Psi’s; they can donate it to whatever groups they wish.”

    Ummm, is it? My guess is that it isn’t….

    The fraternity not only exists at the pleasure of UVA but has beef forced to sign conduct agreements (that we know about), how much more do we not know about?

    Could it be that UVA is requiring them to do this? Perhaps even requiring them to donate their own money as well?

  4. Someone with greater wit than I have could probably make a joke about the Stockholm syndrome. Let me just say that FIRE or any number of human rights organizations would be a good place to make a sizable donation. Or perhaps to Jack Montague’s legal fund…

  5. It’s pretty obvious why. It’s another attempt to try and get the people who promote this sort of atmosphere to acknowledge that they’re not rapists. Otherwise, 10 years from now, you’ll be doing an article on how people still think they guys in That Fraternity did Something, like in the Duke Lacrosse case.

  6. There’s a slight editing error in the 4th and 5th paragraphs from the end.

    The most egregious example of someone acting as if the accusations were true was UVA President Sullivan who summarily suspended all Greek houses and forced them to sign new conduct agreements with terms no other organizations follow long after the charges were publicly known to be false.

    Thanks for the invaluable work.

  7. I suppose that the fraternity sees the continuing bias against it and intends to buy protection from the people persecuting it.

    The fraternity administrators are probably just as politically correct as the university administrators. They are saying “Please, we are good guys too” in the way they intend to pay out the cash.

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