WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 6, 2015): The report by the Columbia School of Journalism on the botched reporting by Rolling Stone magazine about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia could provide a roadmap for defamation law suits against the magazine, and perhaps against some individuals responsible.
Perhaps more importantly in the long run, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, is that it can hurt women making reports about rape in at least two different ways.
First, it may well make anyone to whom such reports are made – police and law enforcement personnel, officials at colleges and universities, and even other students – less likely to believe them.
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“After a while, the boy who cried wolf wasn’t believed, and women who cry rape may likewise not be believed, especially with the completely discredited accusations of rape at Duke University and at the University of Virginia still fresh in people’s minds,” says Banzhaf.
Second, although it is hoped that few media outlets will in the future be as careless as the reporters and editors of Rolling Stone, the legal actions almost certain to be brought based upon that article are likely to make many in the media more wary of running such pieces.
Reporters are likely to demand from women not only more names but also more corroborating facts. Also, editors are likely to be more worried about running such articles in general, and will almost certainly insist upon a more careful vetting process involving lawyers as well as editors and reporters.
Indeed, some are even suggesting that the common journalistic practice of refusing to name women who report rapes – apparently unique among all crime reporting – should be reconsidered.
Columbia report likely to remind about fabrication
At the very least, the additional publicity which will be generated by the Columbia report is likely to remind everyone involved that women sometimes do fabricate reports, or at least grossly inaccurately report what happened, so that such reports should not necessarily be given credence.
Especially in view of the details of the Rolling Stone report, many may realize that, even if a rape did occur, the woman’s description of the facts, the identity of the alleged perpetrator, what was said or done by way of indicating or negating consent, etc. may be distorted.
Dozens of men found guilty of rape by college officials have taken to the courts to seek redress, and many have been successful. The Columbia report may provide an additional argument – or at least a strong talking point – in their favor.
This is turn may make colleges more wary of convicting men on scant and/or contradictory evidence, thereby further discouraging women from reporting this crime.
In short, says Banzhaf, who has been cited as a expert on the topic, this new report may be another major setback for the movement to reduce the incidence of rapes on college campuses.
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
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