Free Speech

Why Johnny Depp Is Suing Amber Heard in Virginia

The Pirates of the Caribbean actor is taking advantage of the state's lax laws that make it easier to file frivolous lawsuits intended to quell speech.

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On Monday, April 11, Johnny Depp's lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard will move forward in a Virginia courtroom. The case is likely to involve allegations from the couple's troubled marriage, which ended in 2017 amid accusations of abuse from both parties. But regardless of the details or the outcome of the trial, the suit could set a bad First Amendment precedent.

The suit stems from a December 2018 op-ed that Heard wrote in The Washington Post. In the brief article, Heard refers to herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse." Though she never refers to anyone by name, Depp claimed in a defamation lawsuit filed in early 2019 that "[t]he op-ed's clear implication" was that he was her abuser. In the filing, Depp asked for $50 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages and attorney's fees.

What makes the suit peculiar is not the facts but the venue: Depp filed the lawsuit in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia. Depp and Heard each live in California, they lived in California as a married couple, and the article in question ran in a newspaper based in Washington, D.C. In fact, in a motion filed in 2019, Heard claimed that "To the best of my knowledge, I have never traveled to Virginia in my life."

It is not immediately clear how Virginia factors into the equation at all, until you consider the state's weak anti-SLAPP law.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It refers to a specific type of defamation claim filed with the intent to shut down or intimidate someone for their speech even if it is not actually defamatory. These suits are relatively inexpensive to file but can be ruinously expensive to defend against. A defendant without considerable resources may end up acquiescing to the lawsuit's demands just to avoid the hassle.

Anti-SLAPP laws are intended to counterweight such suits. Anti-SLAPP laws are state laws that tend to allow defendants to cut off frivolous lawsuits early without having to go through the lengthy and expensive process of taking such a case to trial, if they can demonstrate that the suit is unlikely to prevail. Some even allow the defendant to be reimbursed for attorney fees by the person who filed the bogus lawsuit.

Depp faces an uphill battle: To prove defamation against a public figure requires demonstrating that the speaker was motivated by "actual malice," meaning either knowingly lying or demonstrating "reckless disregard" over whether what they were saying was true. Regardless of Depp's intentions in filing the suit, winning would require proving that Heard had reckless or ill motivations in writing an op-ed which never mentioned him by name.

California, where both Depp and Heard primarily live and work, has a very robust anti-SLAPP statute. As does Washington D.C., home base of the paper that ran Heard's op-ed. Virginia, on the other hand, has an anti-SLAPP law which the Public Participation Project describes as merely "adequate," with no provision allowing a defendant to stop the proceedings early. In recent years, Virginia lawmakers who attempted to strengthen the law were repeatedly unsuccessful. Therefore, if Depp can make even the most narrow justification for why the case should be tried in Virginia, it is much more difficult for Heard to get the suit thrown out or moved to a different venue in a state with more aggressive anti-SLAPP laws. As it happens, Depp successfully argued that Virginia is the proper venue because The Washington Post maintains web servers, as well as a printing plant, in the state.

Depp is not the first person to take advantage of Virginia's comparatively toothless anti-SLAPP statute: In 2019, then-Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Calif.) filed numerous lawsuits against tech companies, news organizations, and even parody Twitter accounts, in Virginia courts, despite none of the defendants having direct ties to the state. Nunes had little success: In one ruling, Judge Robert Payne of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia transferred Nunes' lawsuit against CNN from Richmond to New York City, bemoaning that Virginia "cannot stand as a willing repository for cases which have no real nexus to this district."

Nunes' lawsuits, if successful, would have been injurious to free speech and a free press. Depp's suit carries the same danger, undermining decades of Supreme Court precedents that hold that it should be more difficult to prove defamation against a politician or public figure so as to promote free and open debate on matters of public interest. In fact, Heard will be allowed to argue during trial that she should be protected from Depp's suit because her op-ed concerned a matter of public importance. But Virginia's lack of a robust anti-SLAPP law means that future defendants without Heard's resources may not have that option.

NEXT: Texas Prosecutors Blatantly Ignored the Law When They Charged a Woman With Murder 'by a Self-Induced Abortion'

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  1. Anything an ex-wife says is by definition defamatory.

    (and what do you have against Virginia lawyers making huge amounts of money? Where else will the democrat donations come from?)

  2. Freedom of speech is when your ex-wife is allowed to torch your reputation and get you fired. Or when Twitter is allowed to hold conservatives to a standard it never holds lefties to.

  3. Frivolous lawsuit?
    Go fuck yourself, groomer.

  4. S...L...O...W... news day?

    1. Speech in the West hasn't been been under attack like it is right now since the 30's. Not even McCarthy was this bad. To top it all off there's a politically powerful ex-president who's just declared it's his new mission to silence dissent and free speech, but Reason's quiet as a mouse about it.

      Instead it's fretting that Depp is suing his abusive ex for libel.

  5. When I was young, I was disturbed that my parents were unaware of the existence of the cultural icons that ruled my young life.

    Nowadays I read a story like this, and I ask, "Who the fuck are these people that they are talking about?"

    Then I realize that one of them is a has-been "star" that my now fiftyish daughter had the hots for when she was in her teens and the other is someone I have never heard of, and I realize that ignorance is bliss.

    1. Wow, a very reasonable response in the comment section

      1. Also, tho I'm 36, I'm starting to feel Old because I still remember the days when everyone views Celebrities getting some bad press as a First World Issue

    2. Whether the “star” is actually a reasonably talented performer — it might be a stretch to call him an actor, but he surely is interesting on screen. The other one? Well, like almost everyone else in the country, including her ex-husband, I wish I had never her of her either.

  6. There is evidence that indicated Heard being the Aggressor in a number of Assaults.

    That being said, a better response would be a proper investigation, and if hard evidence comes up, press Criminal Assault charges to whomever is responsible. Instead of normalizing SLAPP suits that can be abused for Censorship

  7. Virginia is for lovers? It seems they're also for haters and snowflakes.
    Does Depp understand the Streisand effect? I mean who reads the WP besides snowflakes and progressive ultra-liberals? I know, I repeat myself.

    1. I don't think you understand the Streisand effect. He's not trying to censor her. He's trying to prove that she lied.

    2. Virginia is for Lovers.......................................................................of Lawyers.

  8. At least on some level, this sounds wrong. How exactly is it that Reason expects people wronged by defamation or libel to seek redress of grievances? Reliance on civil law as an alternative to regulation or government intervention has long been a libertarian claim.

    Bring back dueling and I can see the logic of imposing anti-SLAPP laws.

    1. Not to mention bringing back dueling would eliminate social media, a boon to all mankind.

    2. If dueling we’re legalized, most of not all of our leftist commenters would be long dead. So I’m definitely in favor of it. Leftists should live in mortal terror for being leftists

      1. A duel requires willing participants. How many "leftists" would be willing to face down another person when BOTH have the same weapons.

    3. But that's not what SLAPP laws do. The whole point is that they're only useful against lawfare type suits that were filed primarily as a harassment mechanism. They don't eliminate the concept of defamation.

      I'm pro-dueling, though. 😀

  9. Why Johnny Depp Is Suing Amber Heard in Virginia
    The Pirates of the Caribbean actor is taking advantage of the state's lax laws that make it easier to file frivolous lawsuits intended to quell speech.

    Good for Johnny, I hope he takes her to the cleaners. Hell, I might even sue Amber Heard, just... to be heard.

    1. They’re welcome to give her house arrest….. at my house. That sultry bitch needs some tough love. Or rough love. Maybe both.

      1. Hope you don't mind cleaning shit out of the sheets.

        1. Is she into scat? Yikes. Still, she’s pretty hot.

    2. Heard should be in jail.

  10. Those "lax" laws were created by people elected by a majority.
    Are you against democracy, Joe?

    1. Not everything should be put to a vote.

  11. I thought anti-SLAPP laws were designed to keep corporations from silencing ordinary people who spoke up over issues like pollution.

    Why should they apply to a pretty clear case of a woman claiming her ex-husband abused her?

    Either Depp did abuse Heard -- in which case she can defend her claim with evidence -- or Heard defamed Depp, in which case he should recover damages. In either case, let a jury decide.

    Why is venue-shopping a libertarian issue? Is defamation now a fundamental right?

    1. Maybe have a proper investigation and if hard evidence comes up, press Criminal Assault Charges against whomever is responsible.

      Last I checked, Words are Not Violence

  12. The question is: Why is REASON always out of step with its readers?

    1. Maybe because they are trying to pander to no one

    2. Reason likes to pander to progressive types in order to look cool with the kids.

  13. So does this mean Reason is going to start questioning why suits are brought in particular jurisdictions in other instances? Or is it just for this case?

    1. Like against Trump? No…. no……. that won’t be happening.

      1. They actually did talk about a Libel Suit against Trump

        https://reason.com/2017/01/10/judge-dismisses-libel-lawsuit-against-do/

  14. Heard is pretty hot.

    But never stick your wick in crazy.

    1. Brad Pitt & Johnny Depp learned that the hard way.

  15. The idea that DC has a “very robust anti-SLAPP statute” is undercut by the Michael Mann suit against National Review. A robust statute requires judges willing to enforce it.

  16. Heard should be in prison. Man, sometimes I forget why I stopped reading this website, then I come here and regret.

  17. These are two private citizens who happen to appear in public due their job. (As do window washers). The constitution does not elevate them into some special class requiring a different burden of proof. In fact it requires just the opposite result. Public vs private was pulled out of the rear end of the S. Ct. and is hands down, one of the all time worst decisions ever written and that decision, not social media, has led to the end of civil discourse in this Country. Someone called or inferred William Buckley was a fascist in a few sentences of a book and paid for it. That said under any burden of proof Depp is going to lose this one too.

  18. I don't think Mark Steyn would agree that D.C.'s anti-SLAPP law is "very robust." He's been fighting Michael Mann's frivolous lawsuit in the Dickensian Superior Court for what seems like 35 years now.

  19. In the end of the day, we should all agree that heard is a bed shitter and if you don't hate her you are a neonazi. Also, this pointless article made me unsub from reason.tv channel. It is bizarre that you idiots consider trans in female sports such a big deal, but then the real sjw show up you losers defend them.

  20. Where the hell does reason finds these amber haerd fans incels? (Only incels think that heard is not guilty.)

    1. Domt k ow. Ugh about the case. On,y checking it out because she’s hot. She a,so appears kind of nuts. With her looks she probably got molested by a dozen uncles before the ever even met a casting agent.

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