Written by Jeremy W. Peters
Hours after a Virginia jury awarded actor Johnny Depp more than $10 million in his defamation lawsuit against Amber Heard, his former wife, The Washington Post appended a lengthy editor’s note to the essay where the sordid dispute began.
It stated matter of factly that Depp had successfully sued Heard over the essay, which was published under her byline in the newspaper’s opinion section in December 2018. The note then carefully detailed how three claims that Heard made had resulted in a jury finding her liable.
Depp is hardly the first powerful man accused of sexual abuse who has turned the tables on his accuser by filing a multimillion-dollar defamation suit. But he is one of the most prominent so far to win and to demonstrate that defamation law can be a powerful tool if a jury decides there are legitimate reasons to doubt a woman’s story.
The result of the case — a rare outcome for a celebrity because US law requires public figures like Depp to clear an extremely high legal bar in proving defamation — highlighted the fraught decisions women face when coming forward with abuse claims.
It also showed the delicate considerations for publishers — an engine of the #MeToo movement since it erupted more than four years ago — when they air those claims. By sharing those stories, both the women and the press assume the considerable risk that comes with antagonizing the rich, powerful and litigious.
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For the Post, which was not part of Depp’s lawsuit, even appending the editor’s note carried some legal risk. Because the jury found that Heard’s essay was defamatory, updating it with new information could be considered tantamount to republishing it and, therefore, grounds for a lawsuit. When Rolling Stone was found liable for publishing the false account of a woman who said she had been raped at a University of Virginia fraternity, a jury found that the addition of a correction could be used to find the magazine liable for defamation — even though it had no liability for the initial publication itself.
Setting aside the furious back-and-forth over whether Heard was a credible accuser — Depp’s lawyers and his fans insisted she was not — defamation law is intended to make lawsuits by well-known people like him difficult to win. First Amendment experts said Depp was never in a strong legal position considering that public figures have to prove that the person they accuse of defamation acted with “actual malice” or that the person essentially knew he or she was telling a lie. And yet he still won, sending up a warning flare to anyone willing to publish such accusations: The First Amendment may be on your side, but a jury may find otherwise.
Written by Jeremy W. Peters