What the Amber Heard trial can tell you about libel lawsuits

Did actress Amber Heard defame her ex-husband Johnny Depp in an essay that she wrote for the Washington Post in 2018?

The answer to that question goes to the heart of libel law. Now, it’s up to the jury at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia to determine whether the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star is right when he claims Heard’s op-ed severely damaged his career and reputation. (The case was brought to Fairfax because the Post’s online editions are published through servers in the county.)

Depp filed $50 million libel lawsuit

The high-profile trial is the latest chapter in the tumultuous public battle between Heard and Depp who were married for 15 months before Heard filed for divorce in 2016. When Depp took the stand in mid-April in his $50 million libel lawsuit against Heard, he vehemently denied her allegations that he struck, choked, and kicked her during “violent and volatile episodes,” adding he has “never struck a woman in my life.”

But there’s a hitch that Heard’s defense is using against Depp. In the Washington Post piece, Heard actually does not mention Depp by name. Rather, the defense attorneys argued in their opening statement that the essay was written to highlight legislation to protect survivors and that it never detailed allegations against Depp.

What constitutes libel?

To understand the case, you have to consider the nuances of defamation law as some common terms are often confused. First of all, defamation is, by definition, a false statement that damages someone’s reputation. If the untrue statement is made in writing, it is called libel. If, on the other hand, the untrue statement is spoken orally, it is defined as slander. But both are, in other words, types of defamation.

The basics of libel law

Since the centerpiece of the lawsuit is Heard’s published article, libel law applies. The basics of libel law maintains:

  • An opinion is not libel. Libel refers to specific facts that can be proved untrue.
  • A true statement that damages someone’s reputation is not libel.
  • Libel laws are meant to monetarily compensate people for damage to their reputations — not to punish people who make false statements.
  • It’s harder for a public figure to win a libel lawsuit than it is for a private person.

Private person vs. Public figure

Let’s take a closer look at the distinction between private figures and public figures. A public figure is public official or a person with a pervasive presence in public affairs, like celebrities, politicians, and business leaders.

Unlike a private person, who only needs to prove negligence to win a libel lawsuit, the law demands more from a public figure: proving actual malice. It means it needs to be established that the publisher of the statement knew it was false and published it anyway or showed reckless disregard for whether it was true or false. Depp, however, is not suing the Washington Post for publishing Heard’s piece but Heard herself, making the point of proving actual malice moot.

As a side note: In 2020, Depp lost another libel case, against the Sun newspaper, over an article that called him a “wife beater.” The judge at the Royal Courts of Justice in London said the Sun had proved what was in the article to be “substantially true.”

Did Depp suffer reputational damage as a result of an untrue statement?

Instead, Depp’s attorneys are zeroing in on the impact on his reputation. As the trial began, they argued that Heard ruined his reputation by “choosing to lie about him for her own personal benefit.”

Although Heard left out Depp’s name in the op-ed, his lawyers maintain the reference to the actor was clear as Heard chronicled her experience as domestic abuse survivor. Heard has made a series of highly publicized statements about the alleged physical abuse she suffered at his hands, making no mistake who she was indirectly writing about, Depp’s attorneys argue. In particular, they say the piece refers to a restraining order that Heard sought against him in May of 2016, after Depp told her that he wanted a divorce.

Walt Disney canceled movie franchise

Shortly after the publication of Heard’s op-ed, the Walt Disney Company, which owns the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise, cut ties with the actor, who starred as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Heard’s attorneys are, of course, pushing back, describing Depp as revengeful alcohol- and substance-dependent abuser.

Who will win the case?

Did Heard make an untrue statement that damaged Depp’s reputation? When the jury finally reaches a verdict, it will put the spotlight on the scope of libel laws and what it takes to meet the threshold for libel.

* This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic. For a full review of our disclaimer and policies, please click here.

* This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic. For a full review of our disclaimer and policies, please click here.

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