Why are Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee tweeting about Johnny Depp?

AP Photo/Craig Hudson

Sometimes a tweet is so weird that the weirdness becomes newsworthy.

Cryptic, and therefore amenable to multiple interpretations. From most to least charitable:

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1. They followed the Depp/Heard trial extremely closely and believed Johnny deserved to win on the merits. Although it’d still be weird that a bunch of congressmen thought the verdict was so righteous that they had to publicly share that thought on their official account.

2. They didn’t follow the Depp/Heard trial and don’t care about the verdict except insofar as it owns the libs. Someone on Twitter said this afternoon say that Heard losing a test of credibility in a trial this closely watched against the man she accused of abusing her is the end of the #MeToo movement. It’s possible that that’s what the tweet is celebrating. Particularly when you remember that the House Judiciary GOP includes some of the worst members in Congress.

3. They didn’t follow the Depp/Heard trial and aren’t taking a stance on #MeToo. The tweet is more of a general “bros before hos” things. Democrats are the party of women, Republicans are the party of men, ergo a male victory in a high-profile battle of the sexes in court is worthy of celebration.

Whatever the answer, if you suspect that the modern congressional GOP devotes less thought to policy than to trolling its cultural enemies, this will do nothing to dissuade you.

Related to the second point, I think Greg Gutfeld cut to the heart of why the trial feels significant to so many:

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Various Heard defenders are making the point this afternoon that the verdict will discourage victims of domestic violence from coming forward. “Without a doubt, this will have a massive, chilling effect on the #MeToo movement, on women speaking out,” said attorney Caroline Polisi to MSNBC. “Regardless of who you believe in this case, Amber Heard’s statement there [that the verdict is a “setback” for women] is undeniably true.” What follows from that conclusion, though? That Depp shouldn’t have sued, even though he thought he’d been wronged?

That he … shouldn’t have been allowed to sue? I.e. any man accused of terrible abuse should be barred from alleging defamation lest women feel a “chilling effect” from it?

We should worry about chilling effects in setting policy but they’re not the only consideration. Giving people a legal avenue to protect their reputations is an important social priority as well. Law professor Eugene Volokh points to this passage from a Supreme Court decision in the 1960s explaining why lies don’t deserve legal protection, chilling effect or not:

Although honest utterance, even if inaccurate, may further the fruitful exercise of the right of free speech, it does not follow that the lie, knowingly and deliberately published about a public official, should enjoy a like immunity.

At the time the First Amendment was adopted, as today, there were those unscrupulous enough and skillful enough to use the deliberate or reckless falsehood as an effective political tool to unseat the public servant or even topple an administration. That speech is used as a tool for political ends does not automatically bring it under the protective mantle of the Constitution. For the use of the known lie as a tool is at once at odds with the premises of democratic government and with the orderly manner in which economic, social, or political change is to be effected. Calculated falsehood falls into that class of utterances which “are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality….” Hence the knowingly false statement and the false statement made with reckless disregard of the truth, do not enjoy constitutional protection.

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I didn’t watch the trial but *many* people who did concluded that Heard was lying. She admitted on tape to having hit Depp; her performance on the stand struck many as just that, a contrived pander to the jury. If it’s true that she falsely accused Depp of abusing her, by what definition of justice should he be denied recourse in court?

If today’s verdict has a “chilling effect” on *false* accusations of domestic abuse, that’s a good thing, no?

Those worried about a “chilling effect” should bear in mind that the legal foibles of very rich people are rarely a template for the average joe. A blue-collar domestic abuser who wants to silence his victim with a defamation suit would first have to find a lawyer willing to devote the many hours needed to building a case, which will depend on the likelihood of victory and the amount of the prospective damages. That’s assuming that they work on contingency; if not, the abuser would be on the hook for hourly fees. Abusers may also be deterred by the fear of what might come out during discovery and testimony in court, since that could lead to criminal charges. And then there’s the risk of the “Streisand effect,” in which pursuing a lawsuit will backfire by raising awareness of the abuse allegation in the local community. A plaintiff might end up unemployable afterward given the cloud of suspicion he’s under, even if he ends up winning the case.

Again, that’s not to minimize the “chilling effect” risk. Many women who are abused may clam up rather than chance being sued successfully by their abuser after absorbing today’s verdict, never mind that the odds of that happening are low. But what’s the alternative? If you hold women completely harmless from leveling a possibly false allegation, you’re destined to get many more false allegations.

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John Sexton 10:40 PM | June 24, 2024
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