Freedom of Defamation?

The verdict is in: Amber Heard lost; Johnny Depp won. If you haven’t followed their court case circus, Johnny Depp was suing to restore his good name after Amber Heard spread scurrilous rumors of abuse and domestic violence years ago, resulting in the near obliteration of Depp’s career and reputation. I won’t go into the specifics of the case – they have been covered ad nauseum in the press, by Rekieta Law, and online. Instead, I want to talk about the two statements released by Heard and Depp after the verdict found that Heard had defamed Depp with malice. 

Immediately after the jury found against her, Amber Heard released a Twitter statement dripping with petulance, ignorance, and feminist talking points. She griped: 

“The disappointment I feel today is beyond words. I’m heartbroken at the mountain of evidence still was not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence, and sway of my ex-husband. 

“I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women. It is a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously. 

“I believe Johnny’s attorneys succeeded in getting the jury to overlook the key issue of Freedom of Speech and ignore evidence that was so conclusive that we won in the UK. 

“I’m sad I lost this case. But I am sadder still that I seem to have lost a right I thought I had as an American – to speak freely and openly.” 

Every thinking person knows that the idea “believe all women” is as absurd as the notion “believe all men.” Lying about domestic abuse – making false allegations, publishing them, and having them exposed for the world to see – does far more harm to women than a man being cleared by a jury that saw through your contradictions and lies. Women who lie under oath, like men who lie under oath, don’t deserve “to be taken seriously.” 

Furthermore, what woman in 21st-Century America seriously feels so scared of society that she won’t speak out? Our society relentlessly attacks masculinity, makes fun of men, depicts males as bumbling jerks, belittles fathers, has education and court systems generally biased in favor of women, and is increasingly dominated by women. To play the gender card and imply some sort of mythical misogyny and phantom patriarchal oppression of women is idiotic in the extreme! 

Though there are so many morsels I could talk about, I want to ignore the feminism inherent in this message. In the Tweet, Heard said that “the key issue” was “Freedom of Speech.” Let’s talk, then, about this key issue. 

What is Freedom of speech? Does it mean you can say anything you want without restriction? Is it a right to lie, libel, slander, defame, or deceive? Does it allow you to shout “fire!” in a movie theater? Does it dictate that you can bullhorn in a residential neighborhood at 2 A.M.? Amber Heard seems to think so. 

There are indeed those who advocate an unrestrained “Freedom of speech.” Yet, the notion is erroneous and injurious to society. A few seconds of ponderous thought is sufficient to convince anyone that there must be some restraints if we want to maintain a civil society. The Founding Fathers were famous defenders of free speech. George Washington, for instance, famously said: 

“For if Men are to be precluded from offering their Sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter” (George Washington, Address to Army Officers, March 15, 1783). 

Yet, universally, the Founders also acknowledged that not all speech was protected. Author Chester James Antieau explained: 

“Since the natural right sometimes referred to as freedom of communication was designed to enable us to help ourselves and others to our ordained end and to make temporal society a more effective institution for accommodating our temporal needs, the peddling of untruths is never embraced within such a natural right. This was well comprehended by the Fathers. As much as Jefferson loved freedom of the press, he held it subject to these natural law limitations. It ought to be restrained, he urged, “within the legal and wholesome limits of truth.” In his Draught of a Fundamental Constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1783, he suggested a clause: “Printing presses shall be subject to no other restraint than liableness to legal prosecution for false facts printed and published.” Clearly, to Jefferson untruths had no right to enter the market place of thought. Nevertheless, although there is no natural right to utter or publish defamatory untruths, it does not follow that the criminal sanctions of the state should be used to incarcerate such individuals who pervert freedom of communication. There is much to be said for the social policy contained in the Draft for the Virginia Constitution of 1776, which read: “Printing presses shall be free, except so far as by commission of private injury cause may be given of private action.” One can believe that Jefferson felt much this way; when a clergyman allegedly libelled him he had the prosecution dismissed. 

“Because of the lack of appeal to rational ends when force and violence take over, most of the Founding Fathers qualified the natural right to assemble by phrasing this as a “right of the people to assemble peaceably.” Perhaps the Fathers knew better than our generation that when printing is used for peddling for profit pornographies and obscenities it is no longer a natural right. As devoted a believer in natural rights and freedom of expression as Patrick Henry stated: “I acknowledge that licentiousness is dangerous, and that it ought to be provided against.” There is evidence to conclude that even Thomas Jefferson was willing to have the state prosecute those who degenerated in expression to licentiousness dearly endangering community Morals” (Chester James Antieau, Natural Rights and the Founding Fathers – The Virginians, Washington and Lee Law Review, Volume 17, Issue 1, 56). 

Obviously, to allow deliberate lies to be circulated without punishment or censure is dangerous. Prohibiting or punishing the publication of deliberate untruths is not the same as voicing an opinion or publishing/saying something that turns out not to be true. We have all said things that, upon further reflection or when additional information became available, we recanted or realized were wrong. We have all exaggerated or recounted a story out of order or with omissions. That is not what is being discussed. We are talking about the deliberate publication, circulation, or spreading of falsehoods. 

I personally don’t want to live in a society that allows people to knowingly circulate lies or to slander or defame others with impunity. And it doesn’t matter what or who is targeted – the government, a celebrity, a political rival, a war enemy, or your next-door neighbor. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the truth; your feelings, political affiliation, or religious opinions be damned. 

What Amber Heard did was defame Johnny Depp. When we look up “defame” on Google, we find that it means to “damage the good reputation of (someone); slander or libel.” Synonyms include “malign,” “smear,” “traduce,” “besmirch,” “calumniate,” “denigrate,” “disparage,” and “vilify.” At times, we need to vilify evil men. However, when we smear someone who doesn’t deserve it – and we know we do it illegitimately – that is heinous, wrong, and punishable.  

Claiming that Johnny Depp was a violent abuser – which is no small claim – was precisely what Amber Heard did. She not only said it with her mouth, but published it in a major national publication. She lied maliciously, knowingly, and very publicly. She tried to blacken the name of an innocent man. Depp’s other warts aside (we all have them), he didn’t deserve to be accused of domestic abuse – and on the public stage no less. 

Heard called her deliberate lies and defamation “Freedom of Speech,” but it was nothing if not a violation of free speech. Free speech doesn’t protect people when they speak untruths. If she really is correct and Johnny Depp is a master liar, then God will judge him for it and she will be vindicated. No one will get away with their lies indefinitely. That said, a jury of her peers said Amber Heard is lying. During cross-examination, she contradicted herself repeatedly. Her story fell flat. Her witnesses fell flat. Her story, despite being lapped up by a British court, fell flat when exposed to the light for three weeks. 

Despite having no legs to stand on, Heard is still calling her crass defamation – and it formally is defamation – the truth. Lying is not Freedom of speech. Hurting another person is not legitimate. We are not talking about hurting other people’s feelings, but their reputations and livelihoods. Character assassination is a very real form of actual assassination. A society that allows, coddles, and excuses defamation is a society preparing to die. 

To close, there is no Freedom of defamation. Real Freedom of speech does not include the right to destroy other people with lies or to knowingly accuse them of falsehoods. Using our Liberty to harm another person or infringe upon their own rights is wrong. Amber Heard is wrong and has exceeded the just limits of her right of free speech. No one is taking away her right to speak the truth or express honest opinions, no matter how stupid they are, but thank God her defamatory, malicious, and lying speech has been exposed and punished. 

I end with Johnny Depp’s statement celebrating the verdict. It needs no additional commentary: 

“Six years ago, my life, the life of my children, the lives of those closest to me, and also, the lives of the people, who for many, many years have supported and believed in me were forever changed. 

“All in the blink of an eye. 

“False, very serious and criminal allegations were levied at me via the media, which triggered an endless barrage of hateful content, although no charges were ever brought against me. It had already traveled around the world twice within a nanosecond and it had a seismic impact on my life and my career. 

“And six years later, the jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled. 

“My decision to pursue this cause, knowing very well the height of the legal hurdles that I would be facing and the inevitable, worldwide spectacle into my life, was only made after considerable thought. 

“From the very beginning, the goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome. Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me. I feel at peace knowing I have finally accomplished that.” 

Zack Strong, 
June 1, 2022 

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