Respect Equality

Experts divided on what Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial could mean for #MeToo movement

While some fear that the defamation suit might make some survivors of intimate partner abuse reluctant to come forward, others think it will embolden victims.
Actor Amber Heard appears in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Actor Johnny Depp sued his ex-wife actress Amber Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” (Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP)

Story at a glance

  • Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard has now entered its fourth week, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star’s lawyers resting their case on Tuesday.  

  • Depp is suing Heard for defaming him in a 2018 op-ed published in the Washington Post.  

  • Some domestic violence experts worry that the trial might make some fearful to publicly accuse their abusers in the future. While others think it will galvanize them.  

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial in Fairfax, Va., is in its fourth week with Depp’s legal team resting their case on Tuesday and Judge Penney Azcarate rejecting Heard’s motion to dismiss the suit.  

Depp is suing Heard for $50 million for implying in a 2018 Washington Post op-ed that she suffered domestic abuse during their short-lived and tumultuous marriage.  

The op-ed entitled, “Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change,” touches on Heard’s exposure to abuse from “a very young age,” her experience with sexual assault before leaving college and was a call for greater cultural change for victims of sexual violence in the wake of the #MeToo movement.  

Heard does not mention Depp by name but wrote “two years ago, I became the public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”  

That sentence, Depp claims, was enough to cost him his current and future roles in major films, with one expert witness during the trial stating the ensuing damage to his reputation cost him about $40 million worth of income.  

As a public figure, Depp will have to prove actual malice, or in other words, that Heard knew what she published was false or had reckless disregard for whether it was truthful. 

The trial is expected to last a total of six weeks, but even though the hearing is less than halfway done, public opinion seems to have deemed Depp the “winner.” On TikTok, the hashtag #amberheardisinnocent has about 684,000 views while the hashtag #johnnydeppisinnocent has 1.4 billion views, according to reporting from USA Today. Hashtags like #amberheardistrash, #amberheardcancelled, #amberheardsucks and #amberheardbitch also pop up on the platform, with millions of views each.  

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Heard’s PR firm had no comment on how the public’s opinion has veered towards Depp in the early weeks of the trial or on how the verdict could impact the #MeToo movement.  

This public squashing of Heard’s side of the story is not uncommon when a person, typically a woman, accuses a powerful man of abuse, according to Deborah Tuerkheimer, professor of law at the Northwestern University School of Law and author of Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers.  

“We tend to discount her credibility and boost or inflate the credibility of the man,” Tuerkheimer said, noting the irony that Heard’s 2018 op-ed was about this dynamic. “It is extremely difficult for women to come forward with accusations…and she said she didn’t come forward because she understood what she was up against.”  

“It’s not clear to me that when the op-ed was published that people who read it found it convincing…but when a case like this comes to court, and particularly spills into the court of public opinion, I think it becomes more apparent that there really is great skepticism when it comes to women who allege abuse. And that’s true even in the #MeToo era,” Tuerkheimer added.  

The #MeToo movement’s explosion into the mainstream in 2017 made many women feel more comfortable sharing their stories of sexual assault and taking legal action.  

According to a 2019 study conducted by Yale doctoral candidates Ro’ee Levy and Martin Mattson, the #MeToo movement increased the reporting of sex crimes in the U.S. by 7 percent. 

But some domestic violence experts fear that this dynamic of “credibility discounting” and the public nature of the Depp-Heard trial could potentially discourage current or past victims of intimate partner violence, especially those without means, from coming forward with accusations in the future.  

“There seems to be this entertainment angle that is minimizing what happened in that relationship,” said Ruth Glenn, CEO and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “When we begin to put on a show like we have with this it becomes more of entertainment. And by having it brought this way to the general public we’re allowing for assumptions and conclusions and things that don’t allow for us to really dig into the dynamics of domestic violence.”  

There is a long history of men who are accused of abuse suing their accuser for defamation. In a 2018 United Nations report, it found that women who spoke out about their abuse online “are frequently and increasingly threatened with legal proceedings, such as defamation” and says the behavior is a pattern of domestic violence. 

But some believe that the Heard-Depp trial will galvanize more people to hold the perpetrators of abuse accountable. Noting, however, that the high-profile nature of the case does have some “repercussions.” 

“I always think back to Anita Hill when she accused Clarence Thomas. She was treated so poorly by the senate judiciary committee and was portrayed in the media as a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” said Carrie Baker, professor in the program for The Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. “People thought, uh oh, women aren’t going to report sexual harassment anymore because they will be intimidated but exact opposite actually happened.”  

After Hill gave her testimony in 1991, the number of sexual harassment reports and changes to civil rights laws skyrocketed. Similarly, when Christine Blasey Ford testified that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while they were in college, CNN reported that many shared their own stories on social media and called into C-SPAN. 

“It was because Anita Hill’s hearing raised public awareness about the issue and people got pissed and I think there is potential for this situation to do that as well,” Baker said.