Press Group Warns of Bad Precedent in Johnny Depp Case

Amber Heard, left, and Johnny Depp arrive at the premiere of Depp’s film “Black Mass,” at the London film festival on Oct. 11, 2015. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP, File)

FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) – The $50 million defamation case filed in Virginia by actor Johnny Depp against his ex-wife could have a chilling effect on news organizations in the state, an attorney for the Virginia Press Association argued Friday.

The case, now working its way through Fairfax County Circuit Court, revolves around Depp’s claim that his ex-wife, Amber Heard, defamed him by implication in a December 2018 editorial published in The Washington Post. The paper is printed in Fairfax County, and the case is being litigated here.

Heard, 33, co-star of the 2018 blockbuster movie “Aquaman,” and Depp, 56, of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, married in 2015 and divorced in 2017. The split was far from amicable, and in the editorial Heard described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse” and said she had “the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

While she never mentioned Depp by name, he said she was clearly referring to him. His lawsuit filed in March alleges the article was about the accusations she’d made against Depp as their marriage unraveled in 2016.

Depp maintains Heard’s claims are false, “refuted by two separate responding police officers, a litany of neutral third-party witnesses and 87 newly obtained surveillance camera videos,” according to the complaint.

It’s a high profile case revolving around two celebrities with no real ties to Virginia. Jennifer A. Nelson of the University of Virginia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic and counsel for the Virginia Press Association said Friday that the case could have a chilling effect on press organizations in the commonwealth. The group was in court to make its case for submitting an amicus brief.

Broad applications of the defamation by implication doctrine “would require publishers to consider every potential defamatory implication that could possibly extend from otherwise accurate statements,” the organization argued in a motion submitted to the court.

Depp’s lawyer, Benjamin Chew of the Washington, D.C., office of the firm Brown Rudnick, countered that the association’s concerns were already being addressed by lawyers in the case.

Fairfax County Chief Circuit Court Judge Bruce White declined to allow the association to file a brief in the case. While he sometimes welcomes such briefs, he said “this is not one of those occasions.” He added the decision was based on law as opposed to concern for policy goals.

Among other attorneys, Heard is now represented by prominent civil rights lawyer Roberta Kaplan of Kaplan, Hecker & Fink. Kaplan is also representing columnist E. Jean Carroll, who is suing President Donald Trump for defamation. She claims he raped her two decades ago in a dressing room.

Heard has claimed Depp was violent during their marriage and that his outbursts were inextricably intertwined with substance abuse. Last month, Judge White ruled that Depp must give his ex-wife’s attorneys access to medical records related to his alcohol and drug use.

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