More than 130 people, including Gloria Steinem, and organizations in the field of women’s rights advocacy and domestic violence and sexual assault awareness have signed an open letter to support Amber Heard, who lost a defamation suit this year brought by her ex-husband, Johnny Depp, for an op-ed in which she said she was a “public figure representing domestic abuse.”
The letter, which was exclusively shared with NBC News ahead of its public release Wednesday, was signed by groups like the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Law Center, Equality Now and the Women’s March Foundation. It was written by a group of people who identify as domestic violence survivors and supporters of Heard.
Heard filed a brief last month laying the groundwork to appeal a seven-person jury’s decision in Virginia’s Fairfax County Circuit Court to award Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages in June. Heard, who had countersued, was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages but nothing in punitive damages.
Although The Washington Post essay never mentioned Depp by name, Depp’s attorneys said it indirectly referred to allegations Heard made against him during their 2016 divorce. During the trial, she testified in graphic terms about a sexual assault she alleged, as well as allegations of incidents of physical abuse. Depp denied all allegations of abuse.
The letter, which denounces the “rising misuse” of defamation lawsuits to silence people who report domestic and sexual abuse, is one of the biggest public shows of support for Heard after months of silence from many groups after the verdict.
Representatives for both Depp and Heard declined to comment.
The jury’s decision was a legal vindication for Depp, who lost a libel case in the United Kingdom two years ago over claims that he had physically abused Heard. Justice Andrew Nicol ruled against Depp in 2020, saying a British tabloid had presented substantial evidence to show that Depp was violent against Heard on at least 12 of 14 occasions.
After the June verdict, activists called out other groups, like Time’s Up, asking why an organization that had championed victims at the height of the #MeToo movement was now silent. Many who did speak out in support of Heard, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, were met with ferocious backlash from Depp’s supporters online.
A spokesperson for the group behind the letter, who asked to remain anonymous because of the online harassment she has faced for posting in support of Heard, said she believes that after the trial “individuals were afraid to speak out because they saw what was happening to the few who had.”
The letter says the “ongoing online harassment” of Heard and her supporters 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 vilification and harassment of Heard and her supporters were “unprecedented in both vitriol and scale,” the letter says.
Kathy Spillar, the executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said her organization signed the letter after it observed what she called a “growing backlash” against women who speak out against perpetrators of sexual assault, domestic violence and intimate partner violence.
“If this can happen to Amber Heard, it will discourage other women from speaking up and even filing reports about domestic violence and sexual assault,” Spillar said.
The letter says the verdict and the online response to Heard “indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of intimate partner and sexual violence and how survivors respond to it.”
In addition to two dozen feminist organizations, more than 90 domestic violence experts and survivors’ advocates from around the world signed the letter to “condemn the public shaming of Amber Heard and join in support of her.” They include doctors, lawyers, professors, authors and activists.
Others who signed the letter echoed their concerns that reaction to the trial on social media was harmful to everyday victims of domestic violence.
“They see the environment that this has created, and they feel even less safe than before to come forward and speak out about the abuse they suffered,” said Elizabeth Tang, the senior counsel for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.
Tang said abusers can use defamation suits to “silence their victims” or as retaliation against their victims for speaking out.
We cannot silence victims by using courts and lawsuits as a way to retraumatize them, because this is what’s happening
— Christian F. Nunes , national president of The National Organization for Women
Tang said that among the “reasons we felt it was very important to join this letter” are that “when courts do not dismiss these defamation suits in early stages, it creates a lot of trauma for victims to have to go through a very long, drawn-out and invasive process just to prove that the things they said are true or that they did not defame the person they reported.”
Christian F. Nunes, the national president of the National Organization for Women, said she hopes the letter is a reminder that the court system should never be used to strong-arm victims to recant statements about their abuse.
“We cannot silence victims by using courts and lawsuits as a way to retraumatize them, because this is what’s happening,” Nunes said. She said she hopes the letter raises awareness of new tactics some abusers use against their victims, such as social media campaigns.
Since the trial, there has been more public support for Heard on social media, the spokesperson for the group behind the letter said. She and other anonymous Heard supporters had been “working to combat disinformation for months” when they joined for the open letter initiative.
Experts said they had a unanimous message they hoped to send to survivors who read the letter.
“It is also a way to speak to all survivors and tell them, ‘You are not alone,’” Tang said.