There’s a fair argument to be made that no matter which way the jury went in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation case, Heard — and domestic abuse survivors at large — had already lost. Certainly the weeks and weeks of social media abuse, the humiliation, and the relived trauma Heard endured throughout this highly public trial would be enough on its own to have a chilling effect on future domestic abuse survivors. But the verdict still matters. And it especially matters because Heard never asked for any of this: Lest we forget, Depp sued her.
While TikTok and Twitter and YouTube have been flooded with anti-Heard content that’s seemingly impossible to avoid, the opinion pages of nearly every national news outlet (including this one) have been flooded with thoughtful essays pointing to all the evidence that supports Heard and warning of what this means for #MeToo and for feminism. Many have talked about the shocking content of Heard’s photos, texts, videos, and contemporaneous accounts, including texts read out in the courtroom between Depp and Paul Bettany in which Depp wrote, of Heard: “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will f**k her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”
Whatever the evidence showed, however, it’s important to remember this was not a case about whether or not abuse took place. This was a case deciding about how far free speech goes in America.
Depp definitively lost his libel suit in the UK, with a judge determining that The Sun was well within its right to term the actor a “wife-beater,” finding that the substance of the epithet was proven accurate. It may seem strange to many viewers that, using precisely the same evidence, Depp won this defamation case in the US — the only difference being that it was decided by a jury and it was made public. Such are the vicissitudes of global law, meaning that Depp can now be called one thing on one side of the Atlantic and not on the other.
It is hard to argue that the jury, who were not sequestered, cannot have been influenced in some way by the inescapable commentary, the hashtags, or the thoughtful opinion pieces. It is difficult to imagine that they were unable to escape the ubiquitous commentary on all sides.
“I’m sad I lost this case. But I am sadder still that I seem to have lost a right I thought I had as an American – to speak freely and openly,” Heard wrote in a statement released after the verdict. Dealing with that, in the supposed Land of the Free, is going to be painful and difficult.