Rolling Stone wins dismissal of defamation lawsuit over rape article

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit by three former University of Virginia fraternity members who accused Rolling Stone magazine, its publisher Wenner Media and a journalist of defamation over a since retracted article describing a gang rape.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel in Manhattan said details about the attackers in the November 2014 article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely were "too vague and remote" to make readers, family and friends believe that the plaintiffs George Elias IV, Ross Fowler and Stephen Hadford had a role in the alleged rape.

"In the plaintiffs' own words, any 'apparent connection between the plaintiffs and the allegations is an (unfortunate) coincidence,'" Castel wrote.

Erdely's article "A Rape on Campus" described a September 2012 rape of a female student named Jackie at the university's Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house.

The plaintiffs were members of that fraternity, and graduated from the Charlottesville, Virginia, university in 2013.

Castel said the plaintiffs were not named in the article and had no connection to the rape it described, and did not show any defamatory statements that were "of and concerning" them.

Alan Frank, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said his clients would review their legal options, including a possible appeal.

A lawyer for the defendants declined to comment. Rolling Stone and Wenner Media did not immediately respond to separate requests for comment.

The publication of "A Rape on Campus" sparked a national debate over sexual violence on college campuses, before questions arose about the reporting.

Rolling Stone in December 2014 apologized for what it called "discrepancies" in the article.

The following April, it retracted the article altogether, apologizing to university officials and students damaged by the article.

That same month, a report by the dean of Columbia University's journalism school called the case "a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable."

It cited, among other things, failures to check derogatory information with its subjects, and to contact friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped.

A probe by Charlottesville police found no evidence that Jackie was gang-raped. Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana, who helped edit Erdely's article, resigned last August.

Rolling Stone was also sued for defamation over the article by the Phi Kappa Psi chapter and a university administrator.

The magazine is owned by Jann Wenner, who founded it in 1967.

The case is Elias et al v. Rolling Stone LLC et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-05953.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler and Andrew Hay)