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Businesses Still Don’t Know The Rules For Moral Judgment

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Disney)

One of the painful subplots in Stephen Rodrick’s sprawling and sad Rolling Stone profile of Johnny Depp’s personal and financial woes comes as J.K Rowling faces the aftermath Depp’s 2016 divorce from Amber Heard. As Rodrick details, a variety of evidence – photos, video, a 911 call, statements by a friend of Heard’s – showed that Depp physically abused her. Heard, for her own part, signed a non-disclosure agreement and issued a joint statement that sounded like forgiveness, but not denial: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”

That put Rowling in an unpleasant position, because Depp had taken on the role of arch-villain Grindelwald in Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts trilogy:

J.K. Rowling had released a statement -– in the wake of the #MeToo movement – explaining why she hadn’t fired Depp from Fantastic Beasts. “When Johnny Depp was cast as Grindelwald, I thought he’d be wonderful in the role,” Rowling said. “However, around the time of filming his cameo in the first movie, stories had appeared in the press that deeply concerned me and everyone most closely involved in the franchise. . . . However, the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected.   Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but are genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”

This gets to a recurring issue: what obligation does a business have to police the immoral actions of its employees off the job? It’s a question with a lot of angles these days. The easy question is workplace sexual harassment, since that is directly job-related. But what about – as I asked last month – getting caught on camera delivering a racist tirade at restaurant workers? Or what if a longtime fan favorite ballplayer is arrested for domestic violence? When do private employers step in, rather than leave it to the criminal law? If they do step in, how far do they go – is it ever acceptable not to fire someone, or to take them back? Deciding what things are morally unacceptable is the easy part – knowing where to draw the lines is much trickier.

Domestic violence is maybe the hardest case. It’s not just immoral, it’s a violent crime. For a political employer, like the White House with Rob Porter, it makes sense to err on the side of making a moral statement against wife-beating, but then political organizations exist in good part to represent our values. Porter, by all accounts, was good at his job and a good citizen during the workday, but ultimately the White House felt forced by outside pressure to take a stand that domestic violence was inexcusable.

Private businesses like the NFL and Major League Baseball have faced this issue repeatedly of late (most notoriously in the Ray Rice case), and the entertainment industry does, too. And the rules they should follow are a lot murkier. It would be preferable, in dealing with violent crimes, for private businesses to get out of handing down moral judgments and let the criminal process take care of sifting the evidence and expressing society’s view of the appropriate punishments. The problem, however, is our general sense as a society that domestic violence cases are too hard to prosecute and too laxly punished (often because the witnesses are women who are reluctant to walk away or to see the man who supports them financially get thrown in jail), and that celebrities in particular can get away with a lot and buy silence and forgiveness with money and fame.

Thus, Rowling’s dilemma: the evidence of abuse was open and obvious, yet Heard had decided to walk away from Depp and not look back. Depp’s a big star, and well-suited to the role she’d cast him in and carrying something of a lifelong bad-boy reputation, and the domestic violence charge had flown a bit below the public’s radar. She could get away with not firing him from the movie, and might face legal and creative difficulties if she did. I don’t doubt that this was a sincerely painful choice for her, but she took the easy road of doing nothing. In other situations, the road of doing everything – a death sentence for the abuser’s career – may look easier.

I’m not sure I know, myself, where the lines should be when it comes to businesses policing domestic violence. It frequently has nothing to do with behavior on the job. It’s a sign of our society’s longstanding failure on the issue that this ends up in their laps instead of the criminal law’s. Yet the crime is too grave, the injury to an innocent person too brutal, to simply put it in a separate box to be ignored entirely. And so we fumble forward, knowing only that our sense of moral outrage demands we start without knowing where we should stop.

Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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