By Fran Haas
We're used to hearing about lawsuits against colleges and universities arising out of sexual misconduct investigations. However, the recent verdict against Rolling Stone magazine shows us that the specter of litigation in this area isn't confined to institutions of higher education.
Everyone's familiar with Rolling Stone's 2014 report on the University of Virginia and its alleged mishandling of an alleged student-on-student sexual assault. Not long after the article's publication, the story began to unravel. Ultimately, Rolling Stone retracted the story, but not before the damage was done to the University of Virginia, and in particular, to the former Associate Dean Nicole Eramo, who was featured as a key bad actor in the story.
Between the story's publication and its retraction, Dean Eramo was dealt a personal and professional blow. The University of Virginia reassigned her from her duties counseling students on matters involving sexual violence. She received hundreds of email messages from angry writers. She was stripped of her associate dean title. She was isolated on campus. In the meantime, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment.
Dean Eramo filed a defamation claim against Rolling Stone and the author of the story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She alleged the article damaged her reputation by painting her as an official who was indifferent to allegations of rape on campus. The jury sided with Dean Eramo and awarded her $3 million in damages ($2 million assessed against Erdely and $1 million against Rolling Stone).
So what can we learn from the verdict? A few take aways:
• Members of administration leadership who deal with sexual misconduct investigations are a lightning rod. Most will face scathing criticism from students and members of the public even when they have performed their duties flawlessly. Help reinforce the work of these individuals by supporting their efforts internally, marketing their resources to the student body, and providing appropriate training resources.
• Responding to an onslaught of negative publicity is difficult given FERPA protections. Institutions are prohibited from sharing details about student misconduct proceedings, which makes it difficult to respond to specious allegations and can be frustrating for those involved. Consider preventive coordination efforts between your institution's public relations department and leadership charged with sexual misconduct investigation so you have a plan in place if a highly publicized matter presents itself.
• Even if your institution isn't directly involved in litigation stemming from a sexual misconduct investigation, your employees might become involved as a party (like Dean Eramo) or a witness. Keep an open dialog with your staff about their involvement in litigation, since confidential matters and the institution's practices may be implicated by their involvement.