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Is urging your 18-year-old boyfriend to kill himself until he does worthy of a First Amendment claim to free speech? Michelle Carter and her lawyers are hoping that it is.
Carter was convicted in 2017 of involuntary manslaughter after she repeatedly encouraged her boyfriend to take his own life and even provided instructions in numerous phone calls and text messages back in 2014.
This is a particularly intriguing case for free speech absolutists. Are we allowed to say harmful things to each other if those harmful things plant the seed of suicide? Well, planting the seed is one thing, but ensuring that it grows until its tragic conclusion is another. It seems that Conrad Roy was bullied into suicide, although he was contemplating it anyway. Before taking his own life, he reached out for help, for a lifeline, only to reach the exact wrong person.
The case is so bizarre that it has become the focus of an HBO documentary, “I Love You, Now Die.” In the coverage of the trailer for the documentary, the idea is suggested that Carter believed she was doing the right thing in encouraging Roy to end his life. It’s as though they were part of some tragic, co-imagined fantasy where there was a heroism in his suicide. They invoked Romeo and Juliet, that desperate tragedy of teenage suicide, and the topic of his death was daily conversation in their texts. That this weird roleplay ended in a real-life death doesn’t negate that both parties were at fault for imagining and executing Roy’s death.
Did Michelle Carter cause Conrad Roy’s death in urging him to go through with it? He phoned her from inside his truck during a suicide attempt, and when he got out of the truck, she told him to get back in. She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and is currently serving a term of 15 months in a Massachusetts prison. Though the Massachusetts Supreme Court denied her appeal, stating that Carter’s words amounted to “speech integral to unlawful conduct,” she is petitioning to have her case heard by the US Supreme Court.
Her lawyers claim that the First Amendment gives her the right to tell a boy to kill himself. The Massachusetts Supreme Court, in denying her appeal, said that her words constituted “speech integral to unlawful conduct.” Carter’s lawyer, Daniel Marx, said that bringing the charge of manslaughter “based on her words alone” was a violation of the First Amendment. But how, precisely?
To put it simply, if inducing panic is a well-established instance where the First Amendment doesn’t apply, then surely telling your boyfriend to get back into his truck and let carbon monoxide fill his lungs until he is dead should also not fall under the banner of free speech. Encouraging a suicide-in-progress induced further panic. It would be foolish and irresponsible to let Michelle Carter a free-speech hero.
Legally, it might be more complicated, but it’s still unworthy of the Supreme Court. Carter consistently hurt Roy, and now that he’s gone, she doesn’t want to be held responsible for that. There’s also a claim being made about due process, but it doesn’t make sense, no matter how you parse it.
Should you go to jail for telling people to kill themselves? Well, no. But should you go to jail for telling your partner, whom you’ve consistently abused, to kill himself over and over again until he finally does it? Yes.
In Carter’s own words from a text she sent her friend, “[Conrad’s] death is my fault like honestly I could have stopped him I was on the phone with him and he got out of the [truck] because it was working and he got scared and I fucking told him to get back in.’”
Telling your suicidal boyfriend to complete the act of suicide is unethical to say the least, and it’s one of those places where the law and ethics meet. Per Buzzfeed, Carter texted her friend that she told Roy to get back in the truck “…because I knew he would do it all over again the next day and I couldnt [sic] have him live the way he was living anymore I couldnt [sic] do it I wouldnt [sic] let him.” This, too, is an absurd judgement call for a minor to make about the life of a friend. Assisted suicide is also not legal in Massachusetts, and aiding suicide for the cause of ceasing depression is not legal either.
The Supreme Court has no cause to hear this appeal. We have an obligation to our fellow human beings to hear and comfort them when they reach out in dire straits, not to push them over the edge. The selfish and solipsistic nature of Carter’s directive to Roy to get back in the truck is stomach-turning in its inhumanity. She knows it was wrong; she texted friends to say it was her fault.
While that may have been some bullshit teen drama, it was also true. It doesn’t matter how much you want someone out of your life, or how much you want control over them. Inducing a person to kill himself is cult-leader level behaviour and should not be legally tolerated in a civil society.