The lurid spectacle that is Johnny Depp’s $50 million defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard hasn’t just tarnished his star and hers with allegations that he beat her and violated her with a bottle or that she severed part of his finger and emptied her bowels in the marital bed. (Both deny wrongdoing, and Heard has countersued for $100 million.) Amid this grotesquerie, it might be possible to overlook the bizarre involvement of the ACLU. But the civil-rights organization’s cringeworthy role deserves closer scrutiny because of its centrality to the case, and because it exemplifies the degree to which the ACLU has lost its way in recent years.
The heart of Depp’s claim is that Heard ruined his acting career when she published a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post describing herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse”—a thinly veiled reference to much-publicized accusations of assault she made against Depp in court filings toward the end of their short-lived marriage. But Heard hadn’t pitched the idea to the Post—the ACLU had. Terence Dougherty, the organization’s general counsel, testified via video deposition that the ACLU had spearheaded the effort and served as Heard’s ghostwriter in exchange for her promise to donate $3.5 million to the organization. The promised donation also bought Heard the title of ACLU “ambassador on women’s rights with a focus on gender-based violence.” When Heard failed to pay up, Doughtery said, the ACLU collected $100,000 from Depp himself, and another $500,000 from a fund connected to Elon Musk, whom Heard dated after the divorce.
The ACLU’s bestowal of an ambassadorship and scribe-for-hire services upon a scandal-plagued actor willing to pay seven figures to transform herself into a victims’ advocate and advance her acting career—Heard pushed for a publication date that coincided with the release of her film Aquaman—is part of the group’s continuing decline. Once a bastion of free speech and high-minded ideals, the ACLU has become in many respects a caricature of its former self.
Over the organization’s 100-year history, the ACLU’s unique value has been its apolitical willingness to stand up for all speech, regardless of the speaker’s identity, and to stand up for those accused, no matter what the accusation. This content-neutral, take-all-comers stance is based on the premise that the silencing of one side will inevitably lead to a collective hush irreconcilable with the free marketplace of ideas and the commitment to due process that are the hallmarks of our democracy. Doing this often-unpopular work turns on the belief that having an informed and independent-minded citizenry requires the ability to countenance, analyze, and, yes, at times defend opposing points of view.