Why the Carter verdict does not harm freedom of speech

I don’t often find myself in disagreement with the ACLU. But we part company in the case of Michelle Carter, the young woman who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for urging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to follow through with his threats to commit suicide. Here’s what Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, has to say:

Mr. Roy’s death is a terrible tragedy, but it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution.

There is no law in Massachusetts making it a crime to encourage someone, or even to persuade someone, to commit suicide. Yet Ms. Carter has now been convicted of manslaughter, based on the prosecution’s theory that, as a 17-year-old girl, she literally killed Mr. Roy with her words. This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.

The implications of this conviction go far beyond the tragic circumstances of Mr. Roy’s death. If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved ones across the Commonwealth.

Although I don’t think the legal concept of incitement ever came up during the Carter trial, it makes for a good analogy. Over a number of decades, the concept of incitement to violence was refined and narrowed by the Supreme Court, starting with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s assertion in 1919 that you can’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Finally, in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), we arrived at the standard we have today: Speech is not protected by the First Amendment and may be punished if it is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and is “likely to incite or produce such action.” Anything that does not rise to that high level is protected, which is why Brandenburg is an important guarantee of free expression.

I am not a lawyer, so caveat emptor. But it seems to me that Carter’s texts to Roy were directed at inciting him to commit suicide and were likely to lead him to take his life. Yes, I know that this was not an incitement case involving mob violence. But I don’t see how the guilty verdict in the Carter case changes our understanding of what is protected speech and what isn’t. We are not less free today than we were before the verdict was rendered.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Advertisements