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The Depp verdict could bring a chilling effect for domestic abuse survivors

A jury awarded actor Johnny Depp over $10 million in his defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard. Advocates for domestic abuse survivors say the verdict will have ripple effects.
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A jury awarded actor Johnny Depp over $10 million in his defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard. Advocates for domestic abuse survivors say the verdict will have ripple effects.

Even before the verdict came in, the six-week-long trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard had ramifications beyond the courtroom. Experts were warning that anti-feminist groups were using the trial to mobilize and that defamation lawsuits were being used to silence survivors of domestic violence. Now that a jury has sided with Depp, advocates say the verdict could have a chilling effect on other survivors looking to speak out against their abusers.

"It just adds another barrier to what victims and survivors have to deal with, as they're determining how to get the support and safety they need," said Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

While there isn't a way to measure this, Glenn said there's a rolling, cumulative effect of silencing survivors when a domestic violence case is played out as entertainment. "It could be a number of things. It could be 'I've watched this court case. My family will mock me or make fun of me or not understand me.'" She adds that survivors may further be apprehensive about speaking out in fear of being accused of slander.

"You're already faced with fear. You want to come forward and seek support." But, she added "there's an element of, 'will I be believed?'"

The lawsuit itself was over a 2018 op-ed Heard wrote for The Washington Post, where she wrote that after she became "a public figure representing domestic abuse," she "felt the full force of our culture's wrath for women who speak out."

The piece has now been amended with an editor's note, noting the three specific phrases Heard was held liable for.

The six-week-long trial was broadcast live and offered a detailed and difficult look into their relationship. Depp said the Post article ruined his reputation in Hollywood and testified that it was Heard who was the abuser in the relationship. He described one instance where she threw a bottle at him, which cut his hand. Heard said Depp was routinely jealous and angry, and testified that he once sexually assaulted her.

As the drama played out in the courtroom, it drew millions of viewers watching live. On top of that, there was a deluge of accounts on YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, and more recapping the ins and outs of the trial, often painting Heard as a liar — both as part of the actual content and in the comments.

"The trial has turned into a public orgy of misogyny," wrote Guardian columnist Moira Donegan. "While most of the vitriol is nominally directed at Heard, it is hard to shake the feeling that really, it is directed at all women – and in particular, at those of us who spoke out about gendered abuse and sexual violence during the height of the #MeToo movement."

According to Variety, it's rare that a trial gets televised in Virginia. In this case, Judge Penney Azcarate made the call to allow cameras in due to the massive number of media requests she was getting. There was a certain spectacle to the whole thing. And everyone, including domestic abuse survivors, got to watch it happen.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, use a safe computer and contact help. That can include a local shelter, or call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.