More than 130 national women’s organizations and prominent feminist experts released an open letter on Wednesday morning in support of actor Amber Heard, who lost a defamation suit earlier this year to ex-husband Johnny Depp after she publicly identified herself as a survivor of intimate partner violence.
“The vilification of Ms. Heard and ongoing online harassment of her and those who have voiced support for her have been unprecedented in both vitriol and scale,” reads the letter, signed by several national gender justice organizations including the National Women’s Law Center, the Feminist Majority Foundation and the Women’s March Foundation. Gloria Steinem, as well as other prominent feminists and experts in the domestic violence field, signed the letter in support of Heard.
Heard and Depp went to trial in May over a defamation lawsuit Depp filed against Heard for $50 million. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor claimed that Heard damaged his career and income when she publicly but elliptically discussed allegations of domestic violence against Depp in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post. In the op-ed, Heard discussed her experience of domestic and sexual violence throughout her life, later identifying herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.”
After six weeks of livestreamed testimony, a Virginia jury found that the opinion piece Heard wrote was defamatory against Depp. Heard was ordered to pay Depp $10.35 million in total damages ― a steep price for never actually naming her ex-husband in the piece. The “Aquaman” actor filed a brief last month in anticipation of appealing the decision.
But it wasn’t just the jury’s decision in Virginia’s Fairfax County Circuit Court that dealt a blow to Heard and many survivors of intimate partner violence who were watching the live streamed trial unfold. The trial was a full-blown media circus that awakened a fandom of Depp social media users (and a large number of bots) who spent the better part of two months dragging Heard’s character through the mud.
TikTok videos, tweets and Instagram posts flooded social media dissecting Heard’s allegations and often accusing her of being a fame-hungry liar. Anyone who supported Heard on social media was immediately harassed and, in some instances, doxxed and forced off of social media.
“Much of this harassment was fueled by disinformation, misogyny, biphobia, and a monetized social media environment where a woman’s allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault were mocked for entertainment,” the open letter continued. “The same disinformation and victim-blaming tropes are now being used against others who have alleged abuse.”
At the time of the trial, many advocates feared the reaction to Heard’s allegations would have a chilling effect on sexual and domestic violence survivors trying to come forward. Bell Abesti, one of the organizers of the open letter, said that initial fear has come true.
“The reaction to this trial just reinforced why so many survivors stay silent. Not only do we fear retaliation from the person who abused us, but we fear being ostracized and harassed by others as well,” Abesti, a survivor of abuse who is using a pseudonym, said in a statement. “I personally know women who have reconsidered reporting after seeing what happened online to Amber Heard.”
Defamation suits are commonly used tools in perpetrators’ arsenal of weapons to silence their victims, especially perpetrators who have more money or power. During the Me Too era, which saw many famous men fail upward, defamation suits were very common.
“The Depp v. Heard verdict and continued discourse around it indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of intimate partner and sexual violence and how survivors respond to it. The damaging consequences of the spread of this misinformation are incalculable,” the open letter said. “We have grave concerns about the rising misuse of defamation suits to threaten and silence survivors.”
While pop culture can desensitize people to how these types of lawsuits impacted accusers during the Me Too era — many of whom are famous white women with money — celebrities aren’t the only people who face defamation suits.
More than 1 in 5 student survivors who report an assault to their school are threatened with a defamation suit, according to a 2021 report from anti-sexual-violence organization Know Your IX. Nearly 20% are warned by their school beforehand that if they continue with their report they may be sued for defamation. And 10% of student survivors who report to their school have a retaliatory complaint filed against them by their perpetrator. Half of those who face a retaliatory complaint take a leave of absence from school or transfer.
“This case has created a road map for abusers to use against those they have abused,” Emma Grasso Levine, manager of Know Your IX, told HuffPost in June. “... This case is just one example of the ever-expanding, disturbing backlash against the survivor justice movement, and of abusers utilizing systems intended to support survivors in order to further harm them.”
Head here to read the open letter in full.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.