The recent conviction of Rolling Stones reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdley for defamation with actual malice set a new precedent for justice and ethics in journalism. A 10-member jury concluded that Erdley was responsible for defamation, with actual malice in the case brought by Nicole Eramo, a University of Virginia administrator who oversaw sexual violence cases at the time that Rolling Stones published Erdley’s 9,000 word article titled “A Rape On Campus”.
Erdley’s article, claimed Eramo, portrayed her as callous and dismissive of rape reports on campus, when in fact, she spent considerable time counseling the UVA student ‘Jackie’. What makes this case so important is that Eramo’s counsel was able to prove malice.
Most people assume that if someone makes a false claim against an innocent person, it should be easy to sue for defamation, especially if there are hard facts to support one’s innocence. This is true only if you are a ‘private’ person and can prove that the alleged claims made against you are false.
However, if you are a public figure then it’s not enough to prove that the claims are false.
You have to prove what the laws calls “actual malice”. Actual Malice is a much higher bar. To prove actual malice you must show that not only did the person lie, but that they knew they were lying. This is an almost impossible bar to meet because all the defendant needs to say is, “We thought we were telling the truth because we believed the accuser.” This is precisely why tabloids in the United States can afford to be so reckless in attacking public figures.
The court’s decision in regard to Rolling Stone Magazine sets a new precedent. Rolling Stone not only published a story which was false, “Once they decided what the story was going to be about, it didn’t matter what the facts were,”.
The suggestion by the jury that there was reason to doubt the victims claim, and that Rolling Stone failed to investigate the facts changes the way one looks at the legal category of actual malice. It means that it’s not enough to say that you believed the person who claimed to be a victim. If you ignore significant information that might challenge the alleged victim’s story, you may be guilty of defamation or libel.