Depp vs. Heard trial sets a dangerous precedent

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard legal battle implications complicated by intensive media coverage

High-profile defamation trial might have harmful consequences for survivors.
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This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

Despite anyone’s best efforts, the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard defamation trial has been impossible to avoid in the past few weeks online.

Depp claims Heard falsely accused him of domestic abuse in an Op-Ed she wrote for The Washington Post in December 2018. He has said his career suffered greatly because of the piece and filed a defamation lawsuit against Heard, who is countersuing.

The trial has played out on social media platforms as much as in the courtroom, attracting more media attention than most celebrity legal cases. The high-profile nature of the trial has led to every non-informed social media user forming an opinion—the most popular being that Depp is a victim of Heard’s abuse.

Forget the court of law—Depp has already won in the court of public opinion.

The public’s consensus is that Amber Heard is a lying, mentally unstable narcissist. Whether or not this is true, it perpetuates a harmful narrative that paints survivors as unreliable when it comes to accurately recounting their own experiences.

While documenting legal cases can be necessary, the primary purpose of documentation should never be entertainment. Turning such a sensitive case into a public spectacle only serves to further desensitize an already apathetic population when it comes to issues of gender-based violence and abuse.

Depp doesn’t have to be abusive himself for abusers to take advantage of the precedent set by his legal team in this case. Win or lose, the trial presents a model for domestic abusers as to how they can punish survivors for sharing their experiences.

If filing defamation claims against survivors becomes a trend, it could make seeking justice even more traumatic, especially for those without the financial means for adequate legal support. Being dragged into a defamation lawsuit might prolong abuse, even after someone has left their abuser.

At Queen’s and in the world, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, is still widely experienced and severely underreported. Survivors don’t need any further obstacles to justice, but the threat of copycat defamation claims following the Depp v. Heard trial could discourage people from sharing experiences of abuse.

Whether Heard is a lying narcissist, Depp is abusive, both, or neither, the trial lost its focus when it reached a grotesque level of voyeurism. The only thing this media circus is accomplishing is legitimizing others’ pain as palatable entertainment.

No form of abuse is acceptable. When we turn testimonies of alleged abuse into spectacles, it feeds an unhealthy appetite for consuming others’ distress.

—Journal Editorial Board

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