What does the Heard-Depp verdict mean for the #MeToo movement?

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

When Hollywood star Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against Amber Heard ended in his favor on Wednesday, some observers worried that the verdict might have a chilling effect on the #MeToo movement.

On their surface, the circumstances surrounding this case would seem to support those fears, raising the prospect that some victims may now hesitate to speak out about their experiences or distrust the courts as an avenue for justice.

Related: Was it really asking too much for Amber Heard to be listened to without prejudice? | Gaby Hinsliff

But others said that #MeToo – a global outpouring of anger about abuse suffered by women that resulted in actions against many high-profile men across many industries – would continue to expose injustice and would not be halted by one court ruling in a case that many saw as unique.

Depp sued Heard over a December 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which she described being an abuse victim. The Pirates of the Caribbean actor alleged that Heard sullied his reputation, and thwarted his career, even though she never mentioned Depp’s name.

Heard ultimately countersued Depp, claiming that his attorney, Adam Waldman, defamed her by describing her allegations as a “hoax”. After a six-week trial in Fairfax, Virginia, the seven-member jury awarded Depp more than $10m in damages, finding that all three statements he sued over were defamatory. The jury also awarded Heard $2m, finding that one of the three Waldman statements cited in her countersuit was defamatory.

With regard to #MeToo, the outcome of these proceedings – which were supposed to be about first amendment free speech rights but quickly spiraled into a tawdry referendum on Depp and Heard’s relationship – might not be that black-and-white.

Tarana Burke, founder of #MeToo, disagreed that this trial’s outcome would end the movement.

“The ‘me too’ movement isn’t dead, this system is dead,” Burke wrote on Twitter. “This is the same legal system that y’all have been relying on for justice and accountability for decades to no avail. When you get the verdict you want, ‘the movement works’ – when you don’t, it’s dead.

“When Weinstein went to jail it was, ‘me too is winning!’ When Cosby came home it was ‘What a blow, me too is losing!” Burke continued.

She also pointed to how #MeToo had helped many survivors come forward. “In the meantime – millions of people who have never been able to utter the words ‘it happened to me’ have released the shame that wasn’t theirs to carry in the first place.

“This movement is very much ALIVE,” Burke said.

Several attorneys told the Guardian that this trial was dramatically different from the overwhelming majority of proceedings involving abuse, which led them to believe it wouldn’t be a death knell to the movement.

“I’m hoping that people recognize this as distinct from a lot of the #MeToo situations that we’ve seen, for example, like the Harvey Weinsteins of the world,” said Mitra Ahouraian, a media attorney based in Beverly Hills. “This is not that.

“This is two people who were in a toxic relationship that were awful to one another and a jury decided that one of them was manipulating the situation,” Ahouraian said, making clear that she wasn’t taking sides, but rather, describing the jury’s decision.

“I don’t see this on a referendum on #MeToo long term,” said Winter Wheeler, an arbitrator and mediator who previously was a litigator. “I think a lot of people considering it to be that perhaps are not as aware of some of the evidence that came out.”

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in 2015. ‘This is two people who were in a toxic relationship that were awful to one another,’ one expert said.
Johnny Depp and Amber Heard in 2015. ‘This is two people who were in a toxic relationship that were awful to one another,’ one expert said. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

Wheeler pointed to the fact that jurors have to weigh evidence in reaching a verdict, and come to a decision based on facts, not just accept a narrative. “It was apparent to me that this was definitely not a situation where blind faith and belief in an alleged victim was the right way to go,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler didn’t think that this verdict would open the floodgate to more defamation claims against accusers. “In these defamation cases, truth is a complete defense,” Wheeler said. “You don’t see a lot of trials for defamation cases because they’re pretty impossible to prove – any little bit of information that can show this is possibly the truth is enough to get the defendant out of it.

“There’s not like a huge backlog of these cases. There aren’t people dying to file these,” Wheeler continued. “Lawyers don’t even like filing them because they’re so hard to prove – I don’t think your average person needs to worry about it.”

Carrie Goldberg, founder of the victims’ rights law firm CA Goldberg, PLLC, said that a single trial couldn’t be determinative of #MeToo’s viability.

“The Heard Depp trial, with its memes, targeted online harassment and horse betting was a reminder of how unkind and inhumane our society still remains. It will scare some people who can see how ugly court combat can be with a former intimate partner, but there is also nothing typical about what we saw,” Goldberg said in an email.

“We should be careful to draw too many conclusions about #MeToo from the harsh combat of trial since there are so many other signs of progress – offenders being prosecuted, orders of protection granted, financial recoveries, the development of workplace and school policies, expanded statutes of limitations,” Goldberg wrote.

But several attorneys were worried that the verdict did present a potential problem for the #MeToo movement. Victims might see the social media onslaught directed at Heard – and the millions she must pay Depp – and fear what might happen if they speak out.

“I am concerned that it’s further evidence that #MeToo was an empty promise,” said Rebekah Sullivan, founder of the Washington DC-based District Family Law. “What we’ve seen in this time since #MeToo, since it became popular, was not a lot of consequences for people who have been accused – and a lot of consequences and a lot of public consequences, in this case, for people who have made the accusations.

“What this shows is Johnny Depp comes out fighting,” Sullivan said. “Someone pours a cup of water on you, and someone pours a swimming pool of water on them, and I do think it’s chilling for people who come forward with domestic violence allegations.”

The price for speaking out about abuse is already significant, Sullivan said, and the trial shows that the legal and social ramifications can be higher than expected. “That’s scary to people, and it’s something I think most people wouldn’t be willing to risk.”

Sarah Mancinelli, a principal of Ain & Bank, PC, had concerns about whether negative attention on Heard could have an impact on #MeToo.

“To me, the media attention, the public focus that was so positive to Johnny Depp, and so negative to her, felt like a backlash to #MeToo, and sort of a way of potentially over-correcting,” Mancinelli said. “I hope it didn’t, because I think that would be an exceedingly problematic effect.”