Johnny Depp’s lawsuit against Amber Heard is also a tool of silence, experts say


Nicole Bedera has said she felt “frightened” watching Johnny Depp’s libel lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard.

There has been extraordinary media attention to the case, which is taking place in a Virginia courtroom, but seemingly across social media. With the near-daily stream of graphic testimonials emerging from it for weeks, Bedera, a sociologist who studies sexual violence, said she could see a new blueprint emerging: Defamation suits could become a way for perpetrators to lock up survivors in years of abuse.

“A libel suit offers a perpetrator deepening into the power disparities in the relationship and face-to-face contact with a survivor,” Bedera said. “Defamation cases are often a punishment for quitting.”

Experts say the focus on this lawsuit offers abusers a glimpse of a whole new way to potentially exercise power over a survivor. The situation is further aggravated by the very nature of a defamation suit.

Heard wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2018 in support of the Violence Against Women Act. She explained that her belief in the need to strengthen protections for survivors of gender-based violence was personal, writing about how coming forward as a survivor of domestic violence had impacted her mental health and their professional opportunities. Depp, Heard’s ex-husband, was not named at any point in the op-ed, but he refers to a time when the couple made headlines after Heard sought a protective order against Depp in 2016. Depp sued Heard. for defamation, claiming he lost acting jobs because of the editorial and was unable to work afterwards.

Historically, saying you’re a survivor of domestic violence is considered protected speech, Bedera said. The libel suit against Amber Heard, however, has her wondering if that can no longer be the default legal assumption – and what effect it might have.

“Will it make survivors reluctant to volunteer at a crisis center, share their story for a non-profit campaign, tell friends about the abuser, or ask them to set boundaries with him ? she asked. “I fear the survivors will begin to suffer in silence again.”

Bedera adds that a defamation suit assumes that an allegation of intimate partner violence is false – despite the fact that false allegations are “incredibly rare”. “False allegations don’t usually sound like someone trying to ruin someone else’s life,” Bedera said.

Teresa Drake, director of the Intimate Partner Violence Assistance Clinic at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, also worries that these cases are meant to “silence” survivors.

Drake pointed out that from a legal standpoint, this case is unusual because Heard never mentioned Depp by name. The presumption that Depp’s lawyers must prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that the editorial, and only the editorial, is to blame for their client’s failing career.

The heavy burden of proving this point beyond a reasonable doubt leads him to wonder if the case has less to do with libel and more with power. “Historically, we’ve seen that women are free to speak their truth – as long as it doesn’t offend a man.”

Drake is also concerned about the lawsuit’s focus on allegations of abusive behavior by Heard and Depp during their marriage. This focus seems unusual to Drake. The case is whether Heard defamed Depp, not whether Heard or Depp were abused.

Drake shared that since the start of the Depp-Heard trial, one of her former clients contacted her: the survivor got a protective order several years ago; now, more than two years later – and after pleading guilty to a work-related crime – the attacker says this ex-wife is responsible for the end of his career. Drake said she doesn’t think this moment was a coincidence.

Amber Heard listens as a person in the foreground speaks.
Amber Heard listens during the $50 million Depp v Heard libel lawsuit in Fairfax County Circuit Court.

“It will now cost her tens of thousands of dollars to fight this lawsuit against her, for which there is no evidence – and now her credibility is also on the line,” Drake said. “It won’t be the last time we see this. This is a tactic of relatively successful abusers who have the resources and energy to rally the justice system against a survivor.

Drake said while discussions of domestic violence often focus on the most marginalized survivors, those who come from greater means and privilege often face forms of abuse that may seem different from public perceptions.

“When resources are involved – money, popularity – it can act to silence a survivor when there is too much to lose by leaving,” she said. As for the defamation suit, she said: “I think it will say to the attackers, ‘Hey, here’s a great new tool for your tool belt. “”

Christine M. Scartz, director of the Jane W. Wilson Family Justice Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law, said people with more access to wealth and power would benefit from the trial and the widespread attention it receives.

“I promise you that in the demographic I work with, there are abusers who are telling victims right now, ‘I’m going to shoot you a Depp. If you disclose, I will sue you,” she said. “It’s a threat of power and control that now has a name attached to it.”

Much of the trial coverage focused on Depp’s claims that Heard also punched him and that he was a victim of domestic abuse, not her. Heard testified that when she was physical with Depp, it was only when she felt threatened or when he first physically hurt her in some way.

Scartz notes that it’s not just abusers who are currently paying attention to this lawsuit, but also law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. If Heard wins, Scartz said, “I think it will be a signal to judges and lawyers that you should be confident to move flawed cases forward and provide redress to people who may not always be all good looking at outwardly and consistent in their behavior. But if Depp wins, “because she’s also fought him a few times, she’s not entitled to relief. It’s a very dangerous outcome. If he wins, it will give the decision makers the possibility of abdicating responsibility for deciding who the victim is.

A libel suit, Drake said, means being tied up in the court system for “months or even years, worrying about what’s going to happen, spending a huge amount of money on legal representation, having a work stoppage , face retaliation from friends of the litigant. and the family.”

Due to the amount of publicity surrounding this case, it is now likely to happen to many more people. Bedera said in her own research with survivors of sexual assault, the number of survivors she has spoken to and who has spoken to anyone about their assault has increased astronomically after #MeToo. The fear of a costume like this can make it harder for a survivor “to turn to the people they love and trust and need in their life to heal and say, ‘I want tell you about something that happened to me.”

But, Bedera continued, “Imagine if while trying to talk to all those people, someone taking the side of the abuser says to you, ‘If you keep saying that stuff, he’s going to sue you for defamation. .’ I guarantee you that’s happening right now. Or friends and family members say to someone accused of sexual violence, ‘You could sue them.’ I guarantee you people are saying that right now, across the country.”


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