By Gary Robertson
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) - An attorney for a former associate dean of students at the University of Virginia accused Rolling Stone magazine of defaming her in a retracted 2014 story about an alleged gang rape on campus in the first day of a federal court trial.
Nicole Eramo, who is seeking $7.9 million in damages, has accused the magazine of painting her as the villain in a story of a freshman named only as "Jackie" who described being sexually assaulted by seven men during a fraternity party.
"This case is about a journalistic failure. It's not about rape or sexual assault," Eramo's attorney, Thomas Clare, said in opening statements in federal court in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The story, "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA," set off a firestorm of protests and debate about rape on college campuses, but an investigation by the Charlottesville police found that the attack described never actually occurred.
Rolling Stone retracted the article in April 2015, in an embarrassing blow to the magazine founded by Jann Wenner in 1967.
Clare accused Rolling Stone of not checking its facts and publishing even when it had questions about the reliability of the primary source of the rape account.
Eramo, who now works in an administrative role at the school, testified on Tuesday that Rolling Stone had reported she told Jackie that it was hard to find statistics on the prevalence of sex assault at the school because "nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school."
Eramo denied having said that and said no one at the magazine contacted her to ask. She also said that before the article's publication, Jackie had expressed concerns that it would contain inaccuracies and that her efforts to correct them had been unsuccessful.
Rolling Stone's attorney, Scott Sexton, argued that because Eramo was a public figure, the article could not be defamatory unless she could prove that they were made with actual malice.
The magazine's staff believed that the story was true when they printed it, he said, admitting that they had put too much faith in Jackie.
"It's a case about what was in (their) head," Sexton said of Rolling Stone's staff. "Whether Jackie's rape story was true or false is not the issue."
Sex assaults remain a major concern on U.S. college campuses, with some reports estimating that one in five female students will be victims of sex assault during their college years.
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Mary Milliken, Bernard Orr)