Why The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Defamation Case Could Make Things Harder For Victims Of Workplace Sexual Harassment

In case you missed it, a jury from Fairfax County, VA reached a verdict in the Johnny Depp (Depp) Amber Heard (Heard) defamation case. The jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. However, due to damage caps under Virginia law, the punitive damage award was reduced to $350,000.

The jury also found Depp liable for defamation and awarded Heard $2 million in compensatory damages, but nothing for punitive damages. So from a numerical perspective, Depp won his defamation lawsuit. But perhaps his biggest win came in the court of public opinion. And it’s this out-of-court win that might be the most significant, especially when it comes to existing and future workplace victims of abuse, assault and/or harassment.

Social Movements Act Like Pendulums

Social movements often shift back and forth, like a pendulum. For example, the hippies espousing free love and counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s were followed by the yuppies, who focused more on establishing professional careers in urban areas. This kind of shift could also apply to the #MeToo Movement.

Around 2017, allegations were made against Harvey Weinstein relating to sexual abuse and harassment. Soon after, there was an increase in the number of survivors of sexual abuse and/or harassment who felt empowered to speak up about what happened to them. Perhaps Heard’s 2018 piece for the Washington Post that gave rise to this defamation lawsuit was a direct result of the #MeToo Movement.

But the much-publicized outcome of the Depp-Heard defamation trial might signal the beginning of the end of the #MeToo Movement. One reason lies in the dramatic differences in how social media treated Depp and Heard.

Social Media’s Coverage of the Defamation Trial

It’s safe to assume that Depp achieved a legal victory in civil court. But his courtroom win is nothing compared to his win in the court of public opinion. For example, by May 23, 2022, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp obtained about 15 billion views on TikTok. In contrast, #IStandWithAmberHeard achieved a little more than eight million views. But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part was the massive amount of online hate Heard received in relation to Depp. For instance, Heard’s testimony from court got mocked on TikTok, but Depp received overwhelming support on TikTok and Twitter.

Why such a difference in public opinion? There’s probably a combination of factors, such as Depp’s greater overall popularity and/or name recognition and Heard’s less-than-ideal courtroom testimony.

Whatever the reasons, the trial likely resulted in Heard having a lower standing with the general public than Depp. And this is a problem because the facts of the case weren’t as lopsided as social media might suggest.

How Social Media’s Reaction Could Silence Survivors of Workplace Harassment

Heard’s attorney has indicated that she plans to appeal and it’s possible that the appeal could change the outcome of the case. But even if that happens, much of the damage has been done. The legal outcome and social media coverage of the Depp-Heard case will likely continue the trend of people accused of sexual impropriety suing their accusers for defamation.

Even if this trend ends, and accusers survive their legal battles involving defamation, the threat of having to face years of litigation by publicly accusing someone can have strong silencing effect.

Keeping accusers quiet might be one of the most effective tools that harassers and abusers can use, especially if they want to continue their wrongful behavior. So one of the most effective ways to stop abusive behavior is to let survivors tell others about it. If the #MeToo Movement has taught us anything, it’s that the more public something is, the more likely action will be taken in favor of the victim and against the accused.

This effect will likely transfer to the workplace, even if the accused isn’t a world-famous movie star. Anyone can be sued for defamation and anyone can go viral on social media for all the wrong reasons. It might not get the attention the Depp-Heard trial did, but it might still get enough negative attention to keep a victim quiet.

Perhaps a person who has faced sexual assault or harassment is prepared and ready to take on defamation lawsuits and couldn’t care less what people say about them on social media. But future employers probably care how a prospective employee is viewed on social media. And a victim of workplace misconduct probably cares what future employers might think of them.

Bottom Line

The social media coverage of the Depp-Heard trial was so lopsided against Heard, it will probably deter other people from coming forward with accusations of sexual assault or harassment at work. It may even signal the end of the #MeToo Movement. The only real question is how big this deterrent effect will be.

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