Limitations on Free Speech: The Conviction of Michelle Carter

free speech

In July 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy III intentionally filled his truck with carbon monoxide in a Fairhaven, Massachusetts, store parking lot and ended his life. His girlfriend, then-17-year-old Michelle Carter, was charged with his murder. Now, nearly three years later, a verdict on this divisive case has finally been delivered.

On Friday, Carter was pronounced guilty of involuntary manslaughter and now faces up to 20 years in prison because she sent a series of texts to Roy urging him to go through with his suicide. (For those of you who may not be familiar with the details of the case, a simple Google search should fill you in rather quickly.) Carter’s unprecedented verdict raises significant questions about whether words can kill and whether freedom of speech has more limitations than we originally believed.

The first question: Are Carter’s words truly to blame for Roy’s death?

No matter which way you slice it, Roy ended his life by his choice. He did the research on his own, and planned and executed his own death. It was his decision to fill the truck with carbon monoxide, his decision to leave his truck, and his decision to get back into the truck. Carter did not force his hand in any way. She may have encouraged him to go through with his decision, but in the end, the choice was still his.

Roy had a reported history of depression, and had attempted suicide several times prior to meeting Carter in 2012. After their initial meeting, the couple only met in person a handful of times, their relationship consisting primarily of online communication and text messages. Additionally, text records for the 89 weeks prior to the week of Roy’s death indicate that Carter had been urging him to take his medications and get professional help when he confided in her that he was again contemplating suicide. Only in the days prior to his death, after Roy repeatedly refused to take Carter’s advice, did Carter begin to support him in his suicidal endeavors. Given their shared history with mental illness, the obvious lack of depth to a relationship sustained in cyber space, and the content of their conversations months before Roy eventually attempted to carry out his suicide once more, how can Carter be held responsible for Roy’s actions?

In no way is this condoning Carter’s admittedly thoughtless words and lack of preventative action in the days leading to Roy’s death. But there is one critical distinction we cannot just sweep under the rug: whether Carter is actually guilty of murder. Had she physically coerced him into returning to the truck, perhaps. Had she killed him herself and framed it as a suicide, most definitely. But by simply sending a series of texts?

Think about the implications here.

This leads us to the second (and third) question: Is Carter in violation of the First Amendment, since her words essentially led to a man taking his own life? Or is the judge the one in violation of the Constitution here, stretching the boundaries of the law by criminalizing Carter’s words, which should have been hers to speak freely?

Freedom of speech obviously has its limitations. You cannot go into a building and scream, “Fire!” unless there truly is a fire. You cannot issue false statements of fact. You cannot advocate the use of force when it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.”

For the sake of argument, I will be looking at all of this purely from a constitutional standpoint. In Massachusetts, the state wherein Carter resides, there is no law making it a crime to encourage or persuade someone to commit suicide. Suicide itself is not criminalized. Carter, just like any other citizen of the state of Massachusetts, has the freedom to say whatever she’d like in her own private text messages, including encouraging Roy to go through with his suicide. In no way do her words or actions in this case violate freedom of speech. Her words may have influenced Roy, but ultimately, the choice was his to make. Yet, she has been convicted of murder.

How far can we take this? If your words unintentionally drive someone to kill him/herself, are you to be held legally responsible for the life of another human being?  If someone assassinated Donald Trump by beheading him, much the same way Kathy Griffin demonstrated, should she be convicted of involuntary manslaughter as well, since her actions resulted in Trump’s death? Should she now be held accountable for the actions of thousands of others whom her words have influenced? Notice how your answer may change based on your political bias. Curious, don’t you think?

Technically speaking, this juvenile court is overreaching its authority in convicting Carter of fourth degree murder. Since the court cannot prove that Roy took his life because of her words, the judge is pinning blame where it does not wholly belong. He is forever altering the life of a troubled teenage girl who tried to help her depressed, suicidal boyfriend the only way she knew how. Again, I am not condoning her action, merely calling into question the nature of her conviction. Negligence, perhaps. But murder?

Carter is expected to file for an appeal. Odds are an unprecedented case like this will make it all the way to the Supreme Court. We have not heard the end of this, not by a long shot. And time will tell if we will see any further limitations regarding freedom of speech sometime in the near future.

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