14 Feb Coercing Suicide As Free Speech?
The ACLU believes that Michelle Carter’s crime of pressuring a vulnerable cyber-friend to commit suicide, for which she must now begin serving her fifteen-month jail sentence in Massachusetts, should find protection under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. That bizarre argument reveals the bankruptcy of ideas that results when an illogical and limitless definition of free speech is wedded to an utter disregard for the lives of the vulnerable among us. Although Carter’s lawyers plan to petition the U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds, the old legal maxim – hard facts make bad law – may be a good reason for the Justices to reject review. The facts of this case are hard indeed.
On July 13th 2014 Ms. Carter was on her cell phone. On the other end was her eighteen year-old male text-message pen-pal in Massachusetts who had a history of severe depression. Carter had been previously pushing him to kill himself, with texts like “If u don’t do it now you’re never gonna do it.” When he would balk at the idea she would message him, “SEE THAT’S WHAT I MEAN. YOU KEEP PUSHING IT OFF!” On that day, the young man had just climbed out of his Ford F-250 pickup that was filling with carbon monoxide, apparently having second thoughts about his suicide. Carter ordered him to “get back in” and finish the job. That time he did. On Monday, the criminal court ordered Michelle Carter to begin serving her sentence for involuntary manslaughter. From the very beginning, the ACLU had warned that her criminal conviction “imperils free speech,” an argument rejected later on appeal by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and an argument likely to be rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, even if certiorari is granted.
The Massachusetts high court put the issue concisely this way: whether the crime of “wanton and reckless pressuring of a person to commit suicide that overpowers that person’s will to live” offends free speech protections. Those of us who have regularly litigated and defended First Amendment rights should recognize the cost whenever a nonsensical and near-limitless definition of free speech is created. When the “rights” of some speakers are imprudently expanded, unanchored to moral and historical first principles, the rights of others are inevitably eviscerated.
Even if the Carter case is cast in the questionable role of an “assisted euthanasia,” that doesn’t solve the issue. Before his elevation as a Justice to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch recognized in his 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, that “the impulse for assistance in suicide, like the impulse for old-fashioned suicide, might more often than not be the result of an often readily treatable condition,” and he cited depression as one example. The pressure Ms. Carter exerted was obvious. But less outrageous manipulation of highly at-risk persons can be just as effective in pushing them toward death. Would our Founders have ever envisioned First Amendment protection for the cries of a bystander who urges a depressed person hugging the ledge of a sky-scrapper to jump?
There is no free lunch when shoddy free speech arguments trod irresponsibly over values of human life. For the eighteen-year-old young man who climbed back into the cab of his pickup filled with a poisonous toxin, that toll was absolute, and the penalty to his right to live, was final.
Craig Parshall is a civil liberties attorney and author who serves as Special Counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice. The opinions here are his own.