After 130 days of living under a cloud of suspicion as a result of reckless reporting by Rolling Stone magazine, today the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi announced plans to pursue all available legal action against the magazine,”
The report by Columbia University’s School of Journalism demonstrates the reckless nature in which Rolling Stone researched and failed to verify facts in its article that erroneously accused Phi Kappa Psi of crimes its members did not commit,” Stephen Scipione, president of the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, said in the statement. “This type of reporting serves as a sad example of a serious decline of journalistic standards.”
There are questions as to whether or not the fraternity can sue according to CNN
A fraternity is not an individual, but a group. A plaintiff in a defamation case must show that the statements were “of or concerning” the plaintiff. It sounds obvious, but if you’re going to say a statement hurt you, you have to prove the statement actually was about you to begin with.
When the statements are about a group without naming an individual, it’s hard to say the statement is “concerning” the individual — and groups generally cannot sue. For example, you can be sued if you call a specific lawyer a thief, but that same person cannot sue you if you simply call all lawyers thieves. Defamatory statements about a group are therefore not actionable by the group’s individual members, for the most part.
Like all rules, however, there are exceptions. If the defamatory language is about “a comparatively small group of persons and the defamatory part is easily imputed against all members of the small group, an individual member may sue.” If I said, “The 1980 Philadelphia Phillies infielders were a bunch of criminals” (they weren’t), the individual players could sue, because that mean statement is clearly about certain persons — if I said that — which I didn’t.
Phi Kappa Psi would likely argue that the “small group” exception fits it perfectly: Even if the individual members were not identified by name, the defamatory story has been imputed directly to individual members, who have suffered by their association with the group.
On the other hand, Rolling Stone’s lawyers would likely argue that the group is so large and fluid (after all, the membership changes somewhat every year), that even though the fraternity’s reputation is tarnished, the members have suffered no individualized injury.