Depp Trial Exposes Risks to Media in Airing #MeToo Accusations

Mr. Depp’s argument was that the case had nothing to do with the First Amendment’s broad protections for speech. Instead, he insisted, it was about the credibility of the accuser. “The First Amendment doesn’t protect lies that hurt and defame people,” Mr. Depp’s lawyer told the jury as the trial came to a close.

Several lawyers said they were surprised by the outcome, especially because Mr. Depp lost a similar case in Britain, which has much lower legal standards for public figures who sue for defamation. A key difference, said George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center and a former lawyer for The New York Times, was that a judge decided the matter in Britain whereas a jury sided with Mr. Depp in the United States.

“A jury decides what a jury decides, and there’s often no further explanation,” Mr. Freeman said.

The outcome was all the more curious, Mr. Freeman added, because the jury also sided with Ms. Heard on one count in which she claimed that Mr. Depp’s lawyer had defamed her by blaming her for damaging the couple’s penthouse.

“When one side is false, then the other is true,” Mr. Freeman said. “It seems kind of inconsistent to give awards to both.”

Johnny Depp’s Libel Case Against Amber Heard

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In the courtroom. A defamation trial involving the formerly married actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard just concluded in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia. Here is what to know about the case:

Ms. Heard’s op-ed. Mr. Depp’s suit was filed in response to an op-ed Ms. Heard wrote for The Washington Post in 2018 in which she described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Though she did not mention her former husband’s name, he and his lawyers have argued that she was clearly referring to their relationship.

The domestic abuse claims. In the 2020 trial, Ms. Heard accused her former husband of assaulting her first in 2013, after they began dating, and detailed other instances in which he slapped her, head-butted her and threw her to the ground. Mr. Depp has since accused her of punching him, kicking him and throwing objects at him.

The verdict. After a six-week trial, the jury found Mr. Depp was defamed by Ms. Heard in her op-ed, but also that she had been defamed by one of his lawyers. Mr. Depp was awarded $15 million in compensatory and punitive damages, but the judge capped the punitive damages total in accordance with legal limits for a total of $10.35 million. The jury awarded Ms. Heard $2 million in damages.

One implication of the split jury decision is that the law, because of its complexities, may not do what people expect it to do: be an arbiter for the kinds of he said/she said disputes that arise from allegations like sexual assault.

In other similar defamation cases, the publisher has also been part of the lawsuit. First Amendment experts who are concerned about the use of defamation suits in an increasingly polarized climate — especially against news organizations — said the fact that The Post was not named as a party in Mr. Depp’s case probably made his victory easier.

Had The Post been sued, the trial would probably have been more focused on the ways defamation laws can be abused, said RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah.

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