In her now-famous Washington Post op-ed in December 2018, actress Amber Heard wrote, “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” Casual readers may well have wondered: What on earth is a “public figure representing domestic abuse”?
A more elliptical, less clear formulation would have been tough to conceive.
Yet a jury at the Fairfax County, Va., circuit court came away from a six-week trial convinced that this particular passage — along with two others in the same op-ed — was pointed enough to defame actor Johnny Depp, Heard’s former husband and a man she’d previously accused of multiple instances of domestic abuse. It awarded Depp $15 million in total damages, and it also awarded Heard $2 million for a claim in her countersuit that Depp, via an attorney, had defamed her. (The monetary award for Depp includes punitive damages of $5 million that will be cut to $350,000 under a Virginia cap on such damages.)
There was a lot of ugly in the whole affair: ugly fights, ugly rampages, ugly text messages, ugly — and inevitably fleeting — reconciliations. Depp said on the stand, “It was rapid fire, an endless parade of insults, and you know, looking at me like I was a fool.” Heard claimed more than a dozen instances of alleged abuse by Depp. “Johnny promised me — promised me — that he’d ruin my life, that he’d ruin my career. He’d take my life from me,” she said in her testimony.
A British judge in 2020 tossed Depp’s libel action against the Sun newspaper, which had called him a “wife beater” based on Heard’s allegations; that judge’s 129-page ruling, which survived an appeal from Depp and features a microscopic distillation of the evidence, found that “the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard.” Depp has consistently denied these claims of assault.
The op-ed underlying all this madness was an assault, too — against journalism. It embraced a cliched op-ed design, that of deploying public figures to braid their personal experiences with policy prescriptions. “I was exposed to abuse at a very young age,” reads the piece’s opening. “I knew certain things early on, without ever having to be told.”
At a certain point in her adult life, the op-ed states, Heard’s familiarity with these things deepened. Not only did she become a “public figure representing domestic abuse,” she “had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse” — another of the statements determined to be defamatory by the Virginia jury.
Not once did the op-ed mention Depp’s name. The Post was not a defendant in Depp’s libel suit.
Those who start their days with TMZ knew that Heard was referring to Depp with her cryptic references. The tabloids and Hollywood media, after all, had covered the couple’s high-profile breakup, which was finalized in 2017 and included Heard’s pursuit of a domestic abuse restraining order against Depp, who has denied ever assaulting Heard.
For everyone else, however, the Heard op-ed raised questions that it never answered. In what way did she “represent” domestic abuse? What were the specifics of the backlash to which she refers? What did it mean to see “in real time” how institutions rally around accused men? The Post didn’t even include a link in the piece to fill in the context for readers.
Perhaps that was the author’s strategy all along, as suggested in trial testimony and exhibits. Having secured a $7 million divorce settlement, Heard pledged $3.5 million to the ACLU over 10 years. Just months before her op-ed appeared in The Post, Heard became an ACLU ambassador “for women’s rights, with a focus on gender-based violence.” It was a staffer at the ACLU, according to testimony from ACLU general counsel Terence Dougherty, who approached The Post’s Opinions section about publishing an op-ed bearing Heard’s byline.
The first draft came off the keyboards of the ACLU, via consultation with Heard. Four lawyers at the ACLU reviewed it to ensure that it aligned with the organization’s policy positions. Heard’s lawyers separately scrubbed it for compliance with a nondisclosure provision of her divorce settlement, according to an ACLU spokesperson.
So Heard’s celebrity conferred standing at the ACLU, which then leveraged her name into a Post op-ed. The byline was accurate only to the extent that the ACLU tried to craft a piece consistent with Heard’s spoken views. Which is to say, not very accurate. Kris Coratti, a Post spokeswoman, says that the opinions section has a standard form seeking attestation from op-ed writers that they actually wrote the work under their bylines, though it’s uncertain whether it was requested in this case. “We recognize that many writers receive help with their pieces at various stages along the way,” notes Coratti in an email, “and the involvement of the ACLU in the piece was disclosed to us. We also disclosed to our readers Heard’s relationship with the ACLU, as she did in the body of the piece.”
An ACLU spokeswoman offered this statement: “As with many advocacy organizations, the ACLU often submits pieces written by a range of external advocates and leaders in support of urgent policy priorities. It is routine for the ACLU to submit written pieces in collaboration with our Artist Ambassadors, and other high profile individuals who support our work.”
People who feel wronged by published work commonly request retractions from the originating outlet, in many cases via threatening letters from their lawyers. In this case, Depp’s team chose not to, according to a Depp spokeswoman, because the language came in an op-ed, not a conventional news story. As to why the actor didn’t name The Post as a defendant in the case, a source close to Depp notes that “Johnny felt that the foremost responsibility for the content of the article was Ms. Heard herself.” That decision also saved Depp from confronting what would have been a ferocious legal defense from an organization whose livelihood rides on the First Amendment.
The Post on Thursday appended to Heard’s op-ed an editor’s note apprising readers of this week’s developments. It was a neutral passage that avoided taking a position on the Virginia jury’s verdict, and amplified the weakness of the piece itself — which was that The Post was taking a shortcut to this controversy, forgoing the journalistic effort required to piece together a bona fide #MeToo story.
A jury has made its decision on the merits of the case. Does The Post stand by the op-ed? “We do not take stands on the opinions shared in our op-eds,” replies Coratti.