A recent article written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which was published in Rolling Stone last month, described a series of gruesome sexual attacks against a female victim named “Jackie”, for purposes of her privacy and protection, which was said to have occurred at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia. Jackie described how she was forced to endure three hours of serial rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-splattered and emotionally devastated. The article drew worldwide attention and prompted immediate intensive reactions by university officials and the police- all in the wake of other national reports on how sexual assault cases are being mishandled at many major colleges. The individually named fraternity house was vandalized, and some of the student/members moved out to avoid ridicule and possible harm from a hostile and enraged student body having quickly mobilized after the article was published. Editors at the Rolling Stone decided early on not to question the “alleged” rapists, even to get their side of the allegations. Thousands of people who commented in various news outlets overwhelmingly condemned the attackers as privileged rich Southern boys merely exercising boozy rituals they perceived to be a rite of passage; Few questioned the claims made by the primary reporter. The horrific accusations rattled the country. Late last week, the Washington Post broke a new story concerning “Jackie’s” accounting of what happened: No such sexual attack took place at the fraternity house, and other details covered in the original story appear to be false. While it is not clear what happened (we now know what apparently didn’t happen), the sensational article was sufficiently false so as to constitute negligent journalism. Some of those who choose to believe in the story or some version thereof, now claim that such victims often have murky or inconsistent recollection of events following a rape; Such memory lapses may be true in some instances, however here where “Jackie” apparently convinced the Rolling Stone editors not to contact suspects and other witnesses, such reasoning is suspect- it is almost if none of the parties wanted her version corroborated- the story was huge. Moreover, it’s hard to attach a “blame the victim” mentality to this type of story if it turns out that “Jackie” actually didn’t want her version of what happened verified. This is a problem on another level, where universities are being actively encouraged to initially handle rape cases without affording the suspects the opportunity to confront their accusers immediately. Rape is wrong but so is convicting someone in the press without standards of fundamental fairness. A Rolling Stone editor has now prefaced the online article with a disclaimer acknowledging specific deficiencies in the report and a pledge to keep investigating the case.
UPDATE: March 23, 2015: POLICE: NO EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT RAPE ALLEGATIONS
Police in Charlottesville found no evidence to support the rape claim that was previously reported in the Rolling Stone and announced that they are suspending their investigation after thoroughly reviewing the alleged allegations. The announcement by Police Chief Timothy Longo was wobbly in the sense that initially he said “I can’t prove that something didn’t happen, and there may come the point in time in which this survivor (sic), or complaining party or someone else, may come forward with information that might help us move this investigation further”. It was not until he was pressed by a journalist in the audience who asked why he did not officially clear the fraternity and its members of wrongdoing, that he finally replied, “I think I just did that.”
The fact that the fraternity members have been cleared has not stopped nervous college officials from imposing restrictions on how college students can party on campus; rather, it appears that the mere allegation of a sexual assault was adequate in the minds of college officials to impose a litany of new rules to change the culture of the school- apparently, as it mainly pertains to social events. And of course, that is the problem with unfounded allegations of sexual assaults on campus; administrators immediately become too proactive, and often succumb to the trend du jour of college campus issues being promoted by zealous advocates; in the process, due process is often tossed out the window.
UPDATE: April 5, 2015: Rolling Stone has retracted the rape article following an independent report compiled by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that said the magazine failed to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify the details provided by the alleged victim in the case.
COMMENT: In the NY Times piece, referenced above, they quote the author of the botched “story,” as apologizing to Rolling Stone readers, her colleagues and “any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.” We hope that was not the full extent of her apology- because if so- she forgot to apologize to the college students who were demeaned by the reckless article. About the concerns being raised about how such a story might compromise the willingness of real rape victims to come forward in the future, there is simply no reliable evidence to support such a claim. On the other hand, the focus of alleged sexual assaults on college or adjacent grounds, are not aberrant stories these days, notwithstanding the data that shows there are less sexual assaults on college grounds than elsewhere. One does not have to wonder long about whether a violent rape in the South side of Chicago would garner such massive media attention- but the fact that it would not cause people to pause and ask why to focus all the attention on colleges. The quick answer appears to be the claim that college officials have failed to implement the appropriate investigatory policies to handle rape claims, or that peer pressure prevents victims from coming forward- a fact apparently unique to the socially minded college student lifestyle. The problem is, this is not true. The police are well trained to handle all aspects of a rape investigation in most college locations, and they do not need help from quasi-detectives hired by the colleges. Moreover, the danger is that innocent defendants will likely lose critical due process rights if non-police officers conduct the initial investigation process, because, in many instances, constitutional protections do not apply to private personnel. We know that numerous defendants have been falsely convicted by initial statements and interviews of the parties involved in crimes. It is also true that these early stages of an investigation often include the collection of critical physical evidence, frequently through seizures that are consented to (obviating the need for a warrant) without adequate constitutional warnings, or statements that are similarly provided. If the constitution is deemed not to apply to private college personnel, abuses are likely to occur. Turning the initial investigations over to college staff is walking down a slippery and dangerous slope.
UPDATE: November 4, 2016—
CHARLOTTESVILLE —A federal court jury decided Friday that a Rolling Stone journalist defamed a former University of Virginia associate dean in a 2014 magazine article about sexual assault on campus that included a debunked account of a fraternity gang rape.
The jury of 10 determined that the plaintiff had proven actual malice. The money determination will come later.