The Carter Verdict: Is Free Speech Actually Free?

This week in Massachusettes, a verdict of “Guilty” to Involuntary Manslaughter was reached in the criminal trial of Michelle Carter.  The beautiful 20-year-old girl who appeared so elegant and stoic in court up until the Judge’s rendering, had been doing her best to save face against the ugly accusations: that she had knowingly helped murder her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III.

Carter in court and Roy (inset); Photo via RadarOnline.

Specifically, Carter had sent Roy a steady barrage of text messages encouraging him to kill himself in 2014 (when she was 17 and Roy was 18).

Roy – who was admittedly depressed – engaged in a mostly online relationship with Carter. And, he soon began to bare his soul to her: including the fact that he was suicidal and wished to end his own life. This continued until he hatched a plan to take out his truck, fill it with carbon monoxide, and fall asleep forever. He told Carter of the plan, and they engaged in a stream of texts that finally ended when Roy took his final breath.

At one point, Roy exited the cab of his truck, telling Carter he was scared. At this point, Carter reportedly instructed Roy to “get back in.”  Her texts included: “You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t…” and  “I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready … just do it babe.”

This week, the court ruled that Carter’s conduct was “wanton and reckless” and that she had a duty to report the suicide in progress.

Carter faces up to 20 years in prison, if the verdict stands.

Now – before I move on – there are clearly some problems with this case:

  1. Carter was a 17-year-old girl when this happened. Youthful offenders do not have the same cognitive capabilities as a person who has had longer to develop. The frontal lobes aren’t truly ‘set’ until an individual is around 23, which can render making good decisions a bit tougher.
  2. Carter had her own mental health issues. Reportedly she struggled with anorexia and depression herself, making her own stability questionable.
  3. There are no patently specific laws on the books regarding what occurred. The ACLU has already stepped in claiming that Carter’s right to free speech is being impinged upon. So while it was undoubtedly morally bankrupt, there may be room to posit that it wasn’t actually against the law.

….But here’s why it absolutely SHOULD be….

Not all free speech is protected.

Free speech is a right, but only up to a point. When it infringes upon, or threatens the rights of others, it ceases to be ‘free.’  Here are some examples: defamation, child pornography, hate speech, perjury, threats and blackmail.  All are punishable by substantial jail time because those types of “free speech” trample on the safety and security of others.  This was famously brought to the fore by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion to the US Supreme Court in the case of Schenck v. United States in 1919. He used the metaphor of falsely yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, and argued (successfully) that speech or actions made for the principal purpose of creating unnecessary panic (resulting in foreseeable harm) should not be covered under the first amendment.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.; Photo via Harvard Archives

How is relentlessly encouraging a vulnerable person to complete suicide any different than the aforementioned examples?  Does it not threaten the safety of another individual? Doesn’t it harm just as hate speech harms? Shouldn’t there be a reasonable limit to what is lawfully allowed when it comes to bullying, harassment, and the dangers that they pose?

I believe so.

However, my opinion is just that: one opinion. Debating all the facets of this issue is what is needed to form more up-to-date laws and better guidance for all the forms of speech out there, including text messages and social media.  Otherwise we face more tragedies like the Carter/Roy case, where two families lost their teens in a whirlwind of typing and grief.



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