Johnny Depp’s ex-wife Amber Heard can argue to a jury that she should be protected from a libel lawsuit because an article she wrote in 2018 on domestic violence deals with a matter of public interest, a judge ruled Thursday.
Depp sued Heard for libel in Virginia after the Washington Post published her opinion piece. Depp’s lawyers say the article falsely implies she was physically and sexually abused by Depp when the actors were married.
At a Fairfax County court house on Thursday, Depp’s lawyers sought a ruling that Heard could not, in her defence, invoke a Virginia law designed to protect people from nuisance lawsuits when they speak about matters of public concern.
Depp’s lawyer said the law, known as an anti-Slapp (strategic lawsuit against public participation) provision, is not designed to interfere with private disputes. Heard’s lawyer said the article in question does not mention Depp by name and it addresses a serious issue of public concern: preventing domestic violence.
The judge ruled against Depp, who had sought to bar Heard’s lawyers from claiming immunity. The ruling does not mean Heard has immunity for what she wrote but simply that she can make that argument to a jury as part of her defence.
Heard has also filed a counterclaim for defamation against Depp because of statements Depp‘s lawyer made about her. The ruling comes just weeks before a lengthy trial is scheduled to begin in Fairfax. Both Depp and Heard are scheduled to testify in court, with numerous other Hollywood figures listed as potential witnesses.
Depp was allowed to sue in Virginia because the Washington Post’s online editions are published through servers located in Fairfax County. Heard’s lawyers had sought to have the case moved to California, where the actors live.
During Thursday’s arguments, Depp’s lawyer said that one of the reasons they brought the case in Virginia is because the state’s anti-Slapp law is not as broad as in California. Depp filed a similar lawsuit in the UK against a newspaper and lost. The judge ruled that Depp assaulted Heard on a dozen occasions and put her in fear for her life three times.
The Virginia lawsuit seeks $50m in damages. While the December 2018 Post article never mentions Depp, Heard refers to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse”. Depp has said the accusations are untrue and have made it difficult for him to get the sorts of roles he once did.