Emails: How UVA Stonewalled Rolling Stone On Rape Story


In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Jezebel and at least one other news outlet, the University of Virginia has released a series of emails between the school and Rolling Stone. The emails outline how the school dealt with media requests from reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the magazine’s widely read (and, later, very controversial and much-questioned) story about a student named Jackie, who said she was gang raped at a frat party in 2012.

The emails show failures on both sides. UVA made it exceedingly difficult for Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely to get access to anybody who might have had actual knowledge about Jackie’s allegations or had spoken to her directly. But in the released emails, neither Erdely nor Rolling Stone’s fact-checker ever asked directly whether the school had knowledge of Jackie’s claims or believed them to be true. In fact, there’s no indication in the emails that Erdely and UVA ever discussed Jackie’s case. (They may have done so by phone). The only time Jackie’s name appears at all is in an email between Erdely and Emily Renda, a former student who advocates for sexual assault survivors and who is mentioned in Erdely’s story. (Interestingly, Renda cc’ed a UVA spokesperson on her emails to Erdely. She was doing so, she said, to get permission for a photo of her to run, but that does mean that the UVA spokesperson did at least see Jackie’s name mentioned at one point.)

Erdely could have used Renda or another student as her main character, but went with Jackie. In an email to Renda, she writes: “FYI, I talk about your own assault in the broadest of strokes. Sadly there’s was no room in the article for the full contours of your story, in all its detail, which frankly could have been an article unto itself.”

The emails show that Erdely started talking to school administrators as early as September (the story was published in November). From the start, Erdely tried repeatedly to get an interview with Nicole Eramo, the associate Dean of Students who heads the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board and is the person to whom Jackie says she reported the rape. The reception was polite but chilly: UVA repeatedly refused to let Erdely talk to Eramo, saying without elaboration that she was “unavailable.” She was also not allowed to speak with Claire Kaplan, head of the campus women’s center.

Eramo actually emailed Erdely directly at one point in early September, signaling a willingness to talk: “A few of my students mentioned this story to me so I’m really glad you reached out!” But she CC’ed the school’s PR department on the email, and soon enough she was suddenly and permanently “unavailable.”

Erdely was allowed to speak only to Teresa Sullivan, UVA’s president, but only in the presence of a public relations representative. She made it clear that she felt the school was being overly cagey:

As for the presence of other people during the interview: If that’s the only way I’ll be allowed to talk to President Sullivan, then so be it. But I imagine a university president is fully capable of getting through a phone conversation on her own, without help. My article will obviously mention the way UVA has sought to restrict and pad my access to its administrators.

She also asked repeatedly for statistics about sexual assault on campus, which the school only sent at 8 a.m. on the day she finally interviewed Sullivan, an interview that was rescheduled several times.

As we said, the emails do not show any discussion between Rolling Stone and UVA about Jackie’s specific allegations, including any direct questions about whether the school administrators had heard about them or believed them to be true. Shortly before publication, though, a school spokesperson told Erdely they knew she’d been asking questions about a different sexual assault case, one which supposedly took place in Spring 2014. Spokesperson Anthony Paul de Bruyn was able to tell Erdely that one was untrue, something he repeated three separate times, twice with Erdely and once with the RS fact-checker. He wrote on October 9:

One additional matter. As we said during our phone interview, federal privacy laws prohibit us from disclosing details of any sexual assault report, investigation, or hearing. That said, your characterization of the facts of the spring 2014 case you referenced during our interview is incorrect.

When Erdely asked what about the alleged incident was false, de Bruyn couldn’t or wouldn’t answer: “Due to privacy concerns, we are unable to be more specific about the Spring 2014 case.”

Later emails between a Rolling Stone fact-checker and university administrators show that the fact-checking happened about 11 days before the issue hit the stands, seemingly just before the issue closed. While the fact-checker was careful and thorough in asking about the school’s policies and procedures regarding sexual assault claims, she also never asked via email whether the school had specific knowledge of Jackie’s allegations.

The entire PDF, with some private contact information redacted, is embedded below. We’ll be receiving more documents from UVA in the coming weeks and we’ll update you as we receive them.

Know anything else about this story? Email us.

Image via Flickr/Phil Roeder

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