Depp versus Heard 2022: Opening Statement Semantics
This is about the Depp versus Heard defamation trial in Fairfax, Virginia, April-May 2022. Today is Friday 15th April, the final day of the first week of depositions. The jury was not called today so, for most people, today marks the start of a weekend reprieve from proceedings.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to gather some of my thoughts, questions and opinions in this one place. I have been looking around the internet for similar comments to my own, but either I don’t know where to look, or it’s not out there. In case you have been doing the same thing, I hope you find what I write here interesting.
The first thing that caught my attention came up in the Heard team’s opening statement: their highlighting of the wording of the opinion piece in the Washington Post:
“…I became a public figure representing domestic abuse…”
The lawyer made a lot out of this. In the literal understanding of that sentence, the speaker is not claiming to be a victim of domestic abuse — they are claiming that they became a figure that represented it. No victimhood is implied in the concept of representation, but more importantly it means that the person making that statement could have lied about being a victim, could have lied about being a perpetrator; they could be a victim, they could not — it doesn’t matter: literally taken, all it means is that the public accepted this person had something to do with domestic abuse at that time.
Taking that sentence literally, this means that Heard’s legal defence doesn’t have to prove she was telling the truth. Depp’s team can expend all the energy they want showing that he did not domestically abuse her — the fact is that the writer of those words is only stating that they became a public figure representing domestic abuse — not that they were abused.
In the opening statement, the lawyer seemed quite pleased with this piece of pedantry, there seemed even to be a flavour of “we don’t care if she lied or not”. Bravado, no doubt.
It depends on whether, in a court of law, the spirit of how a phrase was meant carries more weight than what it means literally. If it comes to be seen that the literal reading is more important, then that’s not good for the Depp case.
In the USA, defamation against public figures has to have been made with actual malice, that is, knowing the information is false, or without caring whether it is false or not. Heard’s team are trying to make the case that it doesn’t matter whether the accusations were known to be false by Heard, because the information isn’t about Depp — it’s about Heard, the maker of the statement: “…I became a public figure…”
Did she become a representative of the concept of domestic abuse at that time? Not to the extent that Rihanna and Chris Brown did, in 2009, when that photo came out. I do remember Heard’s accusations coming out, but even at that time, was she famous enough to become the representative of the subject? If anything, it was Johnny Depp.
I have no idea how you measure the concept of being ‘known’, of being a representative — amongst whom, how many demographics are enough? Presumably, legally speaking, known at all is known enough.
Whatever happens, after the descriptions of violence and verbal abuse perpetrated by Heard this week, she might come to represent domestic abuse after all.