We're Losing Track Of What's At Stake In The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Case

The consequences of the defamation trial seem to have got lost in the media circus. But it could have a very chilling impact on domestic violence survivors.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the ongoing defamation trial involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. A TikTok trend mocking Heard’s facial expressions. Tweets demanding justice for a purportedly innocent Depp. A “Fuck Amber Heard” mug that you can buy on Etsy for $12.90. Then there was the “SNL” skit about the infamous poop incident, and the TikToks analysing whether Heard snorted a bump of cocaine while on the stand. The internet is having a field day.

But what’s at stake in the case seems to have got lost in the media circus surrounding it.

The trial centres on a defamation lawsuit Depp filed against Heard for $50m (£40m), claiming that Heard damaged his career and income by publicly discussing allegations of domestic violence against Depp. The lawsuit is based on a 2018 op-ed Heard wrote in the Washington Post discussing her experience of domestic and sexual violence throughout her life.

Heard has accused Depp of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, often triggered by his allegedly heavy drinking and drug use, over the course of their four-year relationship. She has filed a countersuit for $100m (£80.1m), alleging Depp defamed her when his attorneys stated that her abuse allegations were a hoax. Depp claims Heard was the one who was physically violent in their relationship and denies all accusations of physical abuse on his part.

But the trial isn’t, per se, about who did what. Depp is seeking a massive amount of money from Heard for publishing that op-ed – even though she never named him. The actor only identifies herself as a survivor of intimate partner violence, writing that two years prior to publication she “became a public figure representing domestic abuse”.

Actor Amber Heard, left, and actor Johnny Depp appear in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 5, 2022.
via Associated Press
Actor Amber Heard, left, and actor Johnny Depp appear in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 5, 2022.

It’s become more and more common for victims to be sued for defamation, especially in the wake of the Me Too movement, which saw a litany of high-profile and famous men accused of sexual assault. But it’s less common for survivors to face defamation lawsuits when they never actually name their alleged perpetrator.

And the consequences of a case like this could have a lasting impact – not just on Hollywood stars, but also on ordinary people. In the same way that a few high-profile Me Too cases against the likes of Harvey Weinstein quickly cascaded through society, forcing reckonings in almost every aspect of American life, some people fear that if Depp is successful in making it costly to call out abuse, that could have a chilling effect that is similarly contagious.

“The main thing that’s at stake here is whether women are allowed to identify publicly as survivors of gender-based violence,” Dr Nicole Bedera, a sociologist focused on gender-based violence, tells HuffPost.

“In that op-ed, Amber Heard was coming out in support of other survivors during the height of the Me Too moment. That kind of political organising wasn’t really all that controversial before, and now it’s becoming controversial,” says Bedera. “It is a very slippery slope we could be headed down.”

“The main thing that’s at stake here is whether women are allowed to identify publicly as survivors of gender-based violence.”

- Dr. Nicole Bedera

The standard in defamation cases doesn’t require specifically using someone’s name – if a person can reasonably deduce who someone is talking about with some degree of certainty, then that’s enough. But legal experts tell HuffPost that a defamation case like this one is still in the minority.

“I wouldn’t say it’s common, but I wouldn’t say it’s unheard of,” Alena Allen, interim dean and professor of law at the University of Arkansas, says of defamation cases in which a survivor does not name their alleged perpetrator.

Depp’s attorneys argue it’s clear Heard is referring to their client in the op-ed, based on the timeline of the article and the timeline of the two actors’ relationship, which went on for about four years. Depp testified during the trial that Disney dropped him from the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise days after the op-ed published, costing him $22.5m, according to his manager’s testimony.

But Depp’s career had already taken several hits by the time the op-ed was published. The infamous Rolling Stone profile, which painted Depp as a mentally unstable, isolated and drug-fuelled celebrity past his prime, came out months prior to Heard’s essay. Years earlier, Harry Potter fans criticised the franchise for including Depp in the Fantastic Beast series after Heard got a restraining order against Depp, citing physical abuse. The actor was later cut from the third instalment of Fantastic Beasts after he lost a libel case in 2018 against the British newspaper The Sun, which published an article that described him as a “wife-beater”.

In addition to the type of defamation suit, the prominent nature of the case (every minute of the four week-trial has been livestreamed) could have far-reaching consequences well beyond ignorant TikToks and mindless tweets.

“This is so high profile and so widely covered… the potential impact here is the chilling effect on survivors who are going to add this to the calculation with all the other barriers there are: Do I talk about my experience? Do I report it? Do I talk about it publicly in any way, or even in circles of people in my life?” says Jennifer Becker, the legal director at Legal Momentum, a legal defence and education fund for women.

Actor Johnny Depp testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court on April 21, 2022.
via Associated Press
Actor Johnny Depp testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court on April 21, 2022.

If survivors are more reluctant to seek relief – whether it’s from their employer, their school, the police or even a loved one – it means they will likely continue to stay in situations of violence.

And the way the public is treating Heard, a self-identified domestic violence survivor, feels like an added layer of discouragement for any victim contemplating coming forward, Bedera says.

“From the very beginning, Amber Heard was facing a huge uphill battle performing what a perfect victim should look like,” she says. “It’s so easy to violate the perfect victim standard because it’s contradictory. It’s literally impossible to obtain. So it’s not surprising, when an entire case is meant to pick apart a victim’s behaviour, that it would lead people to think that Heard wasn’t a good victim, or that she deserved what happened to her.”

Another method often used to discredit victims is the idea of “mutual abuse”. Mutual abuse was introduced into the trial after a clinical psychologist who was also the couple’s former marriage counsellor used the phrase to describe the actors’ relationship in testimony. The psychologist testified that Depp told her that Heard “gave as good as she got” when it came to physical violence.

But many domestic violence experts disagree, arguing that mutual abuse isn’t really feasible in a situation of intimate partner violence. Some, like Bedera, believe this is just another perpetrator tactic referred to as D.A.R.V.O. – which stands for Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender. The perpetrator may deny the behaviour, attack the victim for confronting him, and then reverse the roles of victim and offender by blaming the victim for his violent behaviour.

“People say, ‘How do you know which one to believe, should you believe both? We believe victims.’ And that is exactly how D.A.R.V.O. is supposed to operate,” says Bedera. “It is intended to make you doubt who is the victim and who is not. It’s really common and it’s really effective.”

No matter the outcome of the case, experts and advocates agree that a case as high-profile as this one will impact cultural conversations around gender-based violence – and probably not for the better.

“I do think this is going to add to the reasons survivors fear disclosing,” says Becker, of Legal Momentum. “And that consequence might bear out, regardless of the outcome of this case.”

Help and support:

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:

  • The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
  • In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
  • In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
  • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
  • Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
  • Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321