Depp-Heard verdict on “credibility,” not “freedom of expression,” experts say


Depp-Heard verdict on "credibility," not "freedom of expression," experts say

  • A Virginia jury on Wednesday found Amber Heard and Johnny Depp both liable for defamation.
  • While Heard denounced the ruling as a First Amendment, legal experts disagreed.
  • “It’s not really a free speech issue, it’s really a credibility issue,” said a former prosecutor.

Amber Heard lamented on Wednesday that she lost the right to “speak freely and frankly” after a Virginia jury found her liable for defamation against her in the case of her ex-husband Johnny Depp.

However, legal experts told insiders that the six-week, sensationalist trial was never really about free speech, noting that the ruling is unlikely to have any future impact on the First Amendment Act.

“It’s not really a free speech issue, it’s really a credibility issue,” said Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and president of West Coast Trial Lawyers. “The jury found she lied and she knew she was lying.”

At the center of the case was Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed article, in which she said she was a survivor of domestic and sexual violence. Depp didn’t name the play, but he accused his ex-wife of ruining his reputation and career. Heard then countered Depp, claiming he attacked her before and during their marriage, which ended in divorce in 2016. Depp denied the claims.

After six weeks of damning testimony, the jury found Wednesday that Heard defamed Depp and awarded him $15 million in damages. They also found Depp liable for defamation against Heard after one of his attorneys called her allegations of sexual abuse a “hoax” and awarded her $2 million in damages.

While the First Amendment enshrines Americans’ right to free speech, the doctrine does not protect against defamatory speech — false statements presented as facts and subsequently causing harm.

“This isn’t about the First Amendment,” Mitra Ahouraian, a Beverly Hills entertainment attorney, told Insider.

“You cannot lie and make statements that harm people. This is not protected speech,” she added.

While Heard’s legal team asked the jury to consider the implications of the First Amendment regarding Heard’s right to publish her story in The Washington Post, Depp’s case more effectively hinged on his allegation that the story she told was fraught with harmful Lies about him, experts said.

Depp’s legal team worked hard to pierce Heard’s story during cross-examination, highlighting inconsistencies in her testimony and casting doubt on her reliability in a trial tactic that proved successful.

For example, Heard claimed he had no role in abuse, but was refuted by a recording played in court that showed Heard saying she “slapped” Depp, according to Ahouraian. Heard testified that she acted in self-defense.

Heard also said that she donated the $7 million from her divorce settlement to charity in 2018, but testimony from the trial indicated she didn’t actually donate the money. She said she hasn’t donated it yet because Depp sued her for $50 million, but that she still plans to.

Several experts also told Insiders that Heard’s graphic descriptions of the acts of violence committed against her by Depp did not match the photos of her injuries presented in court.

Roy Gutterman, director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech and a First Amendment expert, told Insider the key factors are the testimonies of Heard and Depp and their “credibility and credibility and ultimately sympathy,” adding that “the Heard jury Johnny Depp more than Amber believed.”

Legal experts told Insider’s Ashley Collman on Wednesday that Heard lost her defamation case because she lacked credibility and her ex-husband’s star power.

Celebrities face a much higher burden of proof when it comes to defamation lawsuits. Public figures must prove that defamatory statements were made about them with “actual malice,” meaning the speaker knew the statements were false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth.

“If you’re lying about someone and the jury thinks you’re lying, you shouldn’t be protected that way, and it won’t affect your right to speak under the First Amendment,” said John Culhane, a law professor at Widener University’s law school Delaware.

The fact that the jury found both Heard and Depp liable for defamation because of their status as public figures only underscores the uniqueness of this particular case. The preponderance of conflicting evidence and the social media circus surrounding the trial made this case an “outlier” compared to other libel trials, experts said.

“This case is so over the top in so many ways that I wonder how much impact it will have,” Culhane said.

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