The University of Virginia chapter of Phi Kappa Psi said Monday it plans to sue Rolling Stone magazine, one day after the publication retracted a controversial story about a gang rape allegedly committed by some of the fraternity's members.
"After 130 days of living under a cloud of suspicion as a result of reckless reporting by Rolling Stone Magazine, today the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi announced plans to pursue all available legal action against the magazine," it said.
The announcement follows the release of a lengthy investigation into Rolling Stone’s handling of the story by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. That report, issued Sunday, found significant problems at every stage of the reporting, editing and fact-checking process and called the piece "a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable."
“The report by Columbia University’s School of Journalism demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit,” Stephen Scipione, president of the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, said in the statement. “This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards.”
The Nov. 19 publication of the Rolling Stone story upended the idyllic campus, turning it into the heated center of the national debate over campus sexual assault. The fraternity's house was vandalized as outrage over the allegations in the story spread. But questions were soon raised about the credibility of the story. And in March, Charlottesville police said investigators were “not able to conclude to any substantive degree” that the incident had occurred.
“Clearly our fraternity and its members have been defamed, but more importantly we fear this entire episode may prompt some victims to remain in the shadows, fearful to confront their attackers,” Scipione said. “If Rolling Stone wants to play a real role in addressing this problem, it’s time to get serious.”
Students say the unraveling of Rolling Stone’s story has helped redeem the fraternity's reputation on campus. "I think people have a great deal of remorse about how they spoke about Phi Psi in the fall," says Abraham Axler, UVA's student-council president.
The national Phi Kappa Psi fraternity has not yet decided whether it will join any legal action filed by the UVA chapter.
"We could do any array of things between us supporting them, partnering with them, or standing on the sidelines. We have not made those decisions on a national organization level yet. We plan on a release later today at some point " said Chad Stegemiller, Phi Kappa Psi's national assistant executive director.
Timothy Burke, a lawyer who represents fraternities and sororities, believes the detailed examination of Rolling Stone’s missteps in the Columbia report will help Phi Kappa Psi's case.
"The potential for punitive damages are great in this case because Rolling Stone so badly blew every ethical journalistic obligation, according to what the Columbia school of journalism has to say," says Burke, a partner at Fraternal Law Partners.
Any lawsuit would open the fraternity to potentially damaging information unearthed during the discovery process, such as evidence of underage drinking or drug use, but Burke says it's unlikely to be enough to outweigh the benefits of bringing the case in the face of such shocking allegations.
"Any plaintiff’s council is going to advise his clients about the risks of litigation and what can happen in terms of discovery," he says. "I would not be shocked to find out that underage students had a drink or two in the fraternity house. But that’s very different than saying that multiple members of that chapter engaged in gang rape."