Defamation Lawsuits Are a Growing Way to Silence Victims—From Kesha to Amber Heard

In the wake of the Depp-Heard case, we cannot let another woman’s trauma be mocked and meme-ified across the internet.

Kesha attends the Ted Lasso season 2 on July 15, 2021 in West Hollywood, Calif. The long running legal battle between Kesha and her manager Dr. Luke will go to court in July 2023. (Axelle / Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

In October 2014, pop star Kesha (born Kesha Rose Sebert) publicly alleged sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her manager Lukasz Gottwald, also known as Dr. Luke. Gottwald, a major music producer, has denied the allegations and responded with his own defamation suits against Kesha. Almost 10 years later, the defamation case will finally be going to trial—currently scheduled for July 26, 2023.

The back-and-forth, years-long nature of the conflict echoes another high-profile defamation case: Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard. For years, Heard had accused Depp of violence and abuse. The two met in court in June last year for Depp’s defamation lawsuit against Heard for a 2018 op-ed in the Washington Post, in which she described surviving domestic violence at the hands of a powerful man and how institutions rose to protect him. Heard faced a slew of online mockery and hate. A U.S. judge found her liable for defamation and ordered her to pay Depp $10 million—despite the fact that a European court had previously found Depp guilty of at least 12 counts of domestic violence. Heard has since reached a settlement to pay Depp $1 million, though she has admitted no guilt.

Defamation lawsuits are filed against individuals or groups for making false statements that harm another party, personally or professionally—but more and more, defamation suits are being weaponized by accused abusers to use against survivors, threatening them with never-ending legal battles or financial ruin. And the increased media spotlight that defamation cases have had in the last year poses a dire threat to all domestic abuse survivors. Seeing Depp celebrated and vindicated despite previously being found guilty of abuse, while Heard faced endless mockery, has no doubt emboldened other abusive men to take action against those who speak out against them.

The Depp-Heard defamation trial was widely criticized for its publicness, including the judge’s decision to allow it to be broadcasted and the jurors’ admission that they had been looking at social media posts—but with the July case looming, another courtroom spectacle may be around the corner.

In the long-awaited trial, Gottwald is accusing Kesha of defaming him in order to break her contract.

In 2014—two years before #MeToo shined a new light on abuse from public figures—Kesha alleged Gottwald sexually, physically and emotionally abused her. She said there were at least two occasions in which he drugged and raped her. Kesha said the distress of working under her abuser caused extreme emotional tolls, including leading her to develop an eating disorder.

“The facts presented in our lawsuit paint a picture of a man who is controlling and willing to commit horrible acts of abuse in an attempt to intimidate an impressionable, talented, young female artist into submission for his personal gain,” said Kesha’s lawyer, Mark Geragos.

Kesha fans deliver a petition to Sony on March 11, 2016, in New York City. They are protesting Sony’s refusal to voluntarily release the singer Kesha from her contract which requires her to make three more albums with producer Dr. Luke, a man she claims sexually assaulted her. (Steve Zak Photography / WireImage)

Since the allegations were first raised, the legal proceedings have been long-winded and have favored Gottwald. In 2016, Kesha was not granted an injunction from her contract with Sony—meaning all the music she has released since then continues to be under contract with Gottwald. The judge claimed that they could not “decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry.” Two months later, a different judge in New York dismissed her charges of sexual abuse, since they were outside of the statute of limitations.

Gottwald’s lawsuit was originally set for February 2022. However, Kesha’s team filed a number of pre-trial motions and accused Gottwald’s team of purposely delaying their cooperation with the pre-trial motions to try and run the clock out. The pending motions include an attempt to overturn a decision that states that if she wins the case, she cannot sue him for legal damages, and another that found that Gottwald is a private figure, that have not yet been addressed by the court. (If the ruling that Gottwald is a private figure holds, then he will have to prove she acted with negligence, not malice. In defamation cases, the bar is much lower to prove that a defendant acted with negligence than malice, meaning Gottwald will have a much stronger case if he can be considered a private figure.)

A 2020 CUNY Law School review on the effect of #MeToo on defamation claims against survivors showed that “a troubling number of cases illustrate that when survivors share stories of their abuse, the accused may respond with defamation claims.” (This research was conducted before the hugely public Depp-Heard trial, which had detrimental effects for abuse victims.)

Heard and Kesha—two famous, wealthy, white women—have faced ire in the courts and in public opinion. Their abusers, as is often the case, were men 10 and 25 years older than each of them, respectively, who held positions of professional power. With the newly publicized success of defamation lawsuits in silencing survivors, there’s no telling how many abusers will pick up this new tactic.

The court has yet to announce if the Kesha-Gottwald case will be open to the public or broadcast live. But we must be better as a society about striking down the misogynistic, victim-blaming mentality we saw last summer. Let’s hope the case will be tried fairly, with no input from TikTok users or Youtube ‘lawyers’—but if not, we cannot let another woman’s trauma be mocked and meme-ified across the internet.

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Addie Lovell is from Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a senior at Smith College, where she is studying English, and women and gender. Her fiction has appeared in the Masters Review and the Good Life Review.