This week, American actor Johnny Depp lost a libel suit he filed in London, suing the newspaper The Sun for running an article that called him a "wife beater," a reference to his relationship with ex-wife Amber Heard. It was an ugly case, dragging both actors' private lives into the spotlight. And it was a complicated case; each accused the other of abuse. But there was a clear winner, other than the tabloid paper: domestic violence victims.
First, the facts. Depp and Heard met when she was just 22 and he was a 45-year-old father of two living with his longtime partner, Vanessa Paradis. A few years later, Depp and Heard married and soon divorced. Just before the divorce, Heard filed for a restraining order — and photographers captured the mark on her face as she walked in and out of a Los Angeles court. Heard's allegations that Depp had physically and verbally abused her while using drugs and alcohol were soon widely publicized. Depp has always denied them, saying that in reality, Heard had abused him.
Second, the law. British libel law works differently from the American version. In short, in the United States, the burden of proof for libel is on the person claiming to have been libeled — that is, the plaintiff has to demonstrate that what was written is false (at least in cases involving matters of public concern). In the United Kingdom, the burden of proof is on the party accused of libel — that is, The Sun had to prove that what it published about Depp was true. A judge held that it had met that burden and that 12 of 14 of Heard's accusations of abuse met the threshold for truth in civil court. Depp's attorneys say they plan to appeal. (Depp is also suing Heard for defamation in a U.S. court after she published an op-ed in The Washington Post identifying herself as a survivor of sexual and physical violence.)
Depp isn't just the loser here legally; he has also clearly lost the plot. The whole goal of this lawsuit was, ostensibly, to rehabilitate his reputation. And certainly if Depp is telling the truth — and lots of fans who gathered outside the courthouse and are tweeting #JusticeForJohnnyDepp believe he is the real victim here — one can understand why he would want to clear his name. But by filing multiple lawsuits, Depp is only prolonging and expanding the coverage — reminding people of it and bringing it to new people's attention. He's not rehabilitating his reputation; he's further tarnishing it.
And whether Depp is telling the truth or not — and a court of law just held that Heard is the truthful one here — libel law goes beyond just these two people or even the right of tabloids to publish whatever they want about celebrities with little fear of reprisal. Under British law, people can sue for libel and win if the people (or entities) they're suing can't prove that the claims they made were true.
In both the U.S. and the U.K., abusers with resources can always threaten libel suits; even if they lose, they may very well have drained the victims of their money and resolve. This is a real barrier for survivors of intimate partner violence, who often go to great lengths to hide the abuse they're suffering and don't typically carefully document every incident.
Intimate partner violence remains underreported, stigmatized and often still in the shadows; the barriers to coming forward are already high, and most women who suffer violence from loved ones never speak out publicly. For abuse victims, the threat of a lawsuit — especially if the abuser has the resources to sue — can be yet another muzzle.
Obviously there are costs for the falsely accused, too. Having a damaging falsity spread about you is no small inconvenience — especially for those who don't have millions in the bank to fall back on. But filing a lawsuit and proving significant damage is an uphill battle, especially in the United States, where average people need to prove that what was said about them is false.The American system lets more speech stand, and it gives survivors more leeway to speak out, but that has costs, too — after all, most defamation cases aren't about domestic violence but are about other damaging allegedly false claims.
There is no perfect balance here. American libel laws are perhaps too lax and make it too easy to publish falsities about people — and too hard for anyone but the very rich to right that wrong. And British laws are too conservative, putting too heavy a burden on publications and individuals — especially individuals without the means to prove their claims in court. The people who miss out in both systems aren't wealthy actors; they're average folks who are wronged, by either a false claim or a true one they can't prove, and have little recourse.