Michelle Carter The Manslaughterer, or “How I Was Convicted Of A Felony For Saying Words”
Recently, a young woman named Michelle Carter was found guilty of manslaughter for texting her boyfriend to carry out his suicide plans. The text messages are difficult to read and are emotionally confusing. In some instances, Ms. Carter is urging him to end his life, while later she claims that she loves him. Some of the final text messages show that Ms. Carter was panicking at the thought of her boyfriend dying and was desperately seeking help.
This is an important case in our history because it is directly affecting our rights to free speech. Ms. Carter’s actions are certainly reprehensible. Why encourage someone who is struggling with such things? If you truly love them, why encourage suicide? I’m not here to talk about whether what she said was morally reprehensible. Were Ms. Carter’s text messages protected speech?
I’m concerned with the recent developments on Free Speech. This case shows that our free speech rights are in danger. Brandenburg v Ohio and Hess v Indiana are among the cases that define our speech rights. There are certain forms of speech which do not receive protection under the Constitution. These include such things as obscenity (think really disgusting pornography), fraud, child pornography, and speech that could incite imminent lawless action. Imminent lawless action fits best.
Now the test under the law to determine whether the speech is unprotected in this manner is two-fold: (1) the speech is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action, and (2) it is likely to incite or produce such action. If both of these are met, the girl has no defense under the Constitution for her speech. If her texts do not fit both, her speech was protected and convicting her on the texts alone is a violation of her constitutional rights.
We can certainly cross (2) off the list as fitting this case. From all of the facts we know of this case, the victim was constantly depressed and had attempted suicide in the past. Michelle Carter knew this, and the text messages were in no uncertain terms a clear urging for this young man to carry out his plans of suicide. Even the last text message, to have him get back in the truck, was likely to incite suicide. He was in a state of fear and adrenaline from having began the attempt, and his girlfriend was telling him to follow through. (2) is a slam dunk for claiming it is unprotected. What about (1)?
We know that the speech is directed towards producing suicide as soon as possible. Numerous messages were pestering and hounding him for a firm commitment on when he was going to carry out his plan. She relentlessly attempts to have him commit to killing himself in the evening. The next day she continues to hound him. When he got out of the car that would take his life, she told him to get back in. The car was running and he would die within minutes if he stayed within. Seems like it fits, so what is the problem?
Suicide is not a lawless action. There is no law on the books in Massachusetts that makes a person criminally liable for taking their own life. This was not a case where the suicide was going to produce some other illegal action. For instance, he was not going to drive his truck off a bridge into a river (possible criminal mischief for the damages caused). He was not going to jump off a building, possibly injuring people below. He wasn’t even going to shoot himself (possibly discharging a firearm in public or public endangerment). In this case, the suicide was strictly limited to his own property and was not done in a way that would cause illegal action. And Ms. Carter did not encourage any such lawless action.
In other words, what she did, although abhorrent, confusing and reprehensible, was not illegal. She was protected under the Constitution to say those things. You can be angry at her for doing it, you can hate her for her confused, morbid outlook on love, but you can’t criminally prosecute her for saying those things.
Free Speech and Why It Matters
This girl’s text messages probably draw ire from a wide range of people, regardless of political leanings. Here’s one example: Abortion isn’t illegal yet, but the extent to which it is available is quickly being curtailed. Imagine advocating to a group of women to get an abortion and they do. The powers that be see this as undesirable and prosecute you for manslaughter for the words that you said as causing these women to get abortions on their unborn children.
Though it may seem far fetched today, this ruling paves the way for such a thing to happen. People should be allowed to speak about abortions. What they speak about doesn’t matter so much as the right to do so.
Infringing on one’s freedom of speech will also have implications on other issues that may be important to you. A strong freedom of speech right will allow you to speak out against a majority without fear of retribution. Want to denounce a particular group who is favored politically? Strong rights for free speech will allow you to do so. Want to be able to freely speak about your religion? Though this right implicates another fundamental right, a strong right to free speech will further protect religious liberty.
Protecting speech that is abhorrent to you is crucial to protecting the important right to speak your mind whenever you want. Imagine a world where it is illegal to say that you don’t believe in gay marriage, or a world where you cannot say that you think President Trump is a terrible human being. Expanding what is not protected paves the way for a nation where we cannot speak our minds for fear of government prosecution.
The above case has significant ramifications for the future of our rights to speak our mind. Don’t be fooled. She may have had a moral duty to rescue her boyfriend, but she is not prohibited from telling her boyfriend her thoughts.