First Amendment

Massachusetts Supreme Court Says a Teen Who Told Her Boyfriend to Kill Himself Should Go to Jail

The Michelle Carter case has troubling free speech implications.

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Joshua Mcdonough | Dreamstime.com

Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts teenager who encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide and told him to "get back in" a carbon-monoxide-filled truck, will serve a 15-month prison sentence, the state's supreme court ruled on Wednesday.

The decision upholds a lower court's conclusion that Carter is guilty of involuntary manslaughter—that her words caused the death of Roy Conrad III in 2014. The young woman certainly said some very cruel things, and she bears some moral responsibility for what happened. But as I wrote in a 2017 column for The New York Times, to hold her legally responsible for Conrad's death is worrisome:

While some states criminalize the act of convincing people to commit suicide, Massachusetts has no such law. Moreover, speech that is reckless, hateful and ill-willed nevertheless enjoys First Amendment protection. While the Supreme Court has carved out narrowly tailored exceptions for literal threats of violence and incitement to lawless action, telling someone they should kill themselves is not the same as holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger. Nor is it akin to threatening to kill the president, which is specifically prohibited by law—and in any case, only considered a felony if done "knowingly and willfully." (Merely expressing hope that the president dies isn't enough.)

Judge Moniz's verdict is a stunning act of defiance against this general principle. By finding Ms. Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter—rather than some lesser misdeed, such as bullying or harassment—the court has dealt a blow to the constitutionally enshrined idea that speech is not, itself, violence. That's cause for concern.

My concerns are shared by the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which expressed concern that this decision might set a bad precedent for families and doctors discussing end-of-life options for the terminally ill.

Nevertheless, the Massachusetts Supreme Court believes the involuntary manslaughter finding is justified. "No constitutional violation results from convicting a defendant of involuntary manslaughter for reckless and wanton, pressuring text messages and phone calls, preying upon well-known weaknesses, fears, anxieties and promises, that finally overcame the willpower to live of a mentally ill, vulnerable, young person, thereby coercing him to commit suicide," says the court's ruling.

Carter's attorneys have 28 days to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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84 responses to “Massachusetts Supreme Court Says a Teen Who Told Her Boyfriend to Kill Himself Should Go to Jail

  1. She was a vile bully, but both kids were victims of the mental illness industry. They had both been through an unnecessary hospitalization. They learn how to harass each other and exacerbate vulnerabilities leading to crises. They were both told: “There is something wrong with your brain.” This kind of outcome is inevitable. Thank you Reason for supporting and defending free speech while denouncing bullying.

  2. Sounds to me like she did the world a favor.

  3. telling someone they should kill themselves is not the same as holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger.

    If a mob boss were to tell someone that they should kill another person, is that not the same as holding a gun to the ultimate victim’s head and pulling the trigger? Our laws call this conspiracy to commit murder.

    1. “If a mob boss were to tell someone that they should kill another person, is that not the same as holding a gun to the ultimate victim’s head and pulling the trigger?”

      =/= equivalent, in case it’s not obvious.

    2. First off someone killing themselves is not murder.

      Second, she was convicted of involuntary manslaughter not conspiracy to commit murder.

    3. Thats an apt analogy, for if she had told the boy to do that to a third person she’d be guilty of murder.

      But what she was found guilty of doing was conduct which, at that particular time and in that particular circumstance with her particular knowledge, constituted a wanton and reckless disregard for the probable loss of life that would likely result. And rightfully so. When the boy had exited the truck and was abandoning his suicide attempt, if a random stranger had told him to kill himself they would not be guilty. But she was privy to the particular factual situation at that moment, and her saying those specific things to him at that moment cannot be glossed over as “free speech.”

      And for the libertarian its clearly a violation of the NAP, just as much as convincing someone to finish the job who is abandoning a murder attempt against a third party. Just because the conduct is in the form of speech does not imbibe it with magical protections from liability.

      1. “But she was privy to the particular factual situation at that moment, and her saying those specific things to him at that moment cannot be glossed over as “free speech.””

        Bull
        .
        .
        .
        shit.

      2. Bullshit.
        Telling someone to kill themselves, even in full knowledge that they will do so if told, is not and should not be a crime.
        If the family of the suicide person wants to take it to civil court, no problem. That’s where this case should’ve been tried.
        A masshole killed himself after being encouraged to by another masshole – and somehow the masshole courts have proven to be the biggest massholes of all

        1. Also,
          Fuck Tom Brady and his stupid demigod life and achievements!

        2. “Telling someone to kill themselves, even in full knowledge that they will do so if told, is not and should not be a crime.”

          Why? Whats your moral basis for that proposition?

          1. Whats your moral basis for that proposition?
            That criminal law should not be based on morals.

            1. that itself is a moral claim.

              Anytime you proffer a “should/should not” you are making a value judgment. And if you can’t provide a basis for that value judgment we can simply dismiss it as your personal preference which carries no more weight than anybody elses.

              And to claim that criminal law should not be based on morality is pure ignorance. No criminal law, whether civil or common, has ever been established without being rooted in a moral system as its basis.

              1. Values aren’t the same as morals. I can value things without regard to moral judgements. I also regard many acts to be immoral but not criminal.
                Criminal law should be based on violations of the rights of others. You may wish to legislate morality, yours of course. Others prefer a rights based basis.

                1. no they aren’t the same, but the distinction here makes no difference. Morals are derived from the base values and indicate how to achieve those values. But a moral system is a system of values AND the morals giving guidance on how to achieve those values, and how those values can and should be applied others. A set of values without a corresponding set of morals is essentially meaningless (or is just a misapplication of terms). It’d be akin to having a set of numbers but with no operators or other concepts of interaction and calling it mathematics.

                  and well you end up answering the question anyways with a moral judgment: criminal law should be based only on violations of rights. That its a bad thing to violate the rights of others is a moral judgement too, btw But I’m pretty sure you would hold that not all rights violations should be criminalized; theres plenty of property rights violations that aren’t criminal even now. So is there a distinction between which rights violations should be criminalized and which shouldn’t? and why would the boys right not to be unduly influenced into killing himself not be criminal but unduly influencing him to give away his personal property in a fraudulent scheme be criminal?

                  1. My morals are not derived from my values. There is overlap, but one is not a subset of the other. You may wish to use the government to impose your morals on others. That makes you an authoritarian nanny. I can coexist with people who follow other moral codes. I know many people want want set of rules for everything. I don’t. I want the government to defend rights, but stay out of policing morals.

                    1. you are creating an arbitrary definition for ‘morals.’

                      ANYTIME you proffer a statement of “should/should not” that is a moral statement; you are indicating that a particular value should/should not be applied, that there is some standard to which other can be rightfully held. That is the definition of a moral statement. You can’t escape that fact by trying to say its not that. That a government should/should not exist is a moral statement. That it should/should not have certain laws is a moral statement. You can call it a value judgment if you like, it doesn’t change the underlying concept.

                      Saying you wish to impose a value judgment on other people is no different than saying you wish to impose a moral judgment on other people. You are applying a standard and claiming a right to impose that standard on others. But you can’t weasel around and say “Anything I like is a value judgment and can be applied, and anything you like is a moral judgment and cannot be applied.” when its the exact same thing just with a different term.

                    2. Should/should not isn’t the same as a moral judgement. The kids should brush their teeth after eating is not a moral judgement.

              2. My moral basis for that statement is the primacy of individual agency and responsibility. The individual decided to end his own life. She does not have the explicit authority over him to compel action. She can suggest action, attempt to persuade or manipulate him into action, request action – but she is in no position to compel him. This is the difference between a mob boss or commanding officer, even a doctor, employer, or teacher.

                There is also the pragmatic aspect of a slippery slope. At what point do suggestions that someone do something or words that cause painful emotions become criminal if acted upon? What is the basis for the state to judge one’s psychological, or implicit, control over another to hold one criminally responsible?
                Incitement is a delicate balance as is, but adding suicide or other self-inflicted actions to it leads to anybody who speaks being liable for any “bad” thing someone else does

    4. >>> is that not the same as holding a gun to the ultimate victim’s head and pulling the trigger

      not really. some judges say so but in reality is debatable.

  4. This case is way different from doctors and family discussing options for an uncommunicative terminal patient. It’s not even close.

    1. This case represents the state not being able to control when a person dies.

      If you kill yourself, you deprive the state of control.

      So, the state goes after the survivors since you can’t get blood from turnip food.

  5. >>> the Massachusetts Supreme Court

    assholes. so fucking smart because robes. words don’t kill, morons. 1A,

  6. Hmm? ” go fuck yourself.” Could lead to rape conviction. Dear Judge what’s his face. . . Go. . .

  7. the court has dealt a blow to the constitutionally enshrined idea that speech is not, itself, violence.

    Careful with that “dealt a blow” rhetoric, Robby.

  8. So, if *he* berated and insulted *her* into committing suicide, we’d all be cheering when the sentence came back “Not Guilty”, right?

    1. i mean i’m not cheering … someone died, but [raises hand]

    2. Yes

      1. I was kinda hoping for a reply from Robby or one of the more left-libertarians who’s always droning on about how they were bullied and we shouldn’t stand for bullying.

        1. who’s always droning on about how they were bullied and we shouldn’t stand for bullying

          Does that happen often?

    3. “if *he* berated and insulted *her* into committing suicide, we’d all be cheering when the sentence came back “Not Guilty”, right?”

      He’d be a huge masshole, but shouldn’t be convicted of a criminal offense.
      That shit is for a civil court to decide if damages were appropriate- and I think they could be

  9. If really obnoxious speech isn’t protected, why waste the ink on A1?

  10. Suicide should not be a crime and neither should telling, or even strenuously convincing, someone to kill themselves.

    I hereby strenuously urge the Massachusetts Supreme Court to kill themselves. Preferably by wood chipper.

    1. If transgendered individuals would prefer to commit suicide rather than be forced to use the ‘wrong’ restroom in N. Carolina, I’m very much OK with that.

    2. “Hey, Justice. Yes, you. Get back in your chipper and finish the job!”

  11. And all of this nonsense about homophobia and people needing to accommodate trannies because they might commit suicide if society is mean to them is bullshit then, right?

    1. Yes

      1. Again, more questioning civil libertarians like Nick, Robby, and (to a lesser degree) Shackford who will selectively dismiss or denounce certain shame mobs for using epithets and making death threats while defending the free speech rights of others to do the same and to worse ends.

        1. Yeah, well, they’re probably not going to show up and answer you.

        2. Also, those positions aren’t mutually exclusive. There is nothing contradictory about me saying this girl probably did the world a favor, she’s a piece of shit bully, and she has the right to be a piece of shit bully.

          If you can pull up something from one of the writers you note calling for government to stop bullies, I’ll be stunned.

          1. If you can pull up something from one of the writers you note calling for government to stop bullies, I’ll be stunned.

            I’m getting tired of all this ‘Cite?’ bullshit. You are absolutely and retardedly right that you won’t find any of the writers saying anything like “I, Robby Soave, as Associate Editor of Reason Magazine, call upon the government to prevent bullying in all forms post haste and forthwith.”

            Instead, you’ll get regular doses of:

            Everyone should take their claims seriously, show them respect, and refrain from ignoring or dismissing them out of hand.

            To whom is he talking when he says “Everyone”? Under what authority does he demand respect from us *and transfers it to them*,*whomever they may be*? We already provide a police force and a massive social infrastructure to prevent crimes of all manner from being dismissed out of hand, what *more* is Robby calling for be provided to avoid such dismissals?

            1. I think everyone should get vaccinated. Does that mean I want everyone to be strapped down and given shots whether they want it or not? No. You need to learn how to differentiate between “everyone should be nice to each other and should try to be respectful of another person’s claims” and “everyone should be nice to each other and should try to be respectful of another person’s claims or so help me I’ll get men with guns to force you”. There’s a difference between a request and a demand.

  12. Just think of all of the people on this site who would have to be arrested if Tony killed himself.

    1. Exactly ^

    2. Tony is too stupid, sad, and pathetic to try and convince him to kill himself.

  13. Intervening cause. She’s not responsible for what the kid decides to do.

    If she had said to him, “You should steal a smart phone for yourself,” and he went and did it, does anyone think she should be liable for theft?

    1. They evidently want that kind of law in Massachusetts.

    2. I don’t think it’s that simple. Per the analogy above, if I’m a mob boss and I say, “Go kill that guy” then yes, I’m culpable.

      If I tell you about killing someone, and you don’t report me to the police, you’re an accessory after-the-fact.

      I’m not trying to say these are facsimiles of what she did, but there are established cases in law where you don’t have to pull the trigger, but you can be held accountable for actions related to other deaths or crimes.

      For the record, I’m torn on this case because I agree there seems to be concerning 1a issues, but at the same time…jfc…

      1. I’m not trying to say these are facsimiles of what she did, but there are established cases in law where you don’t have to pull the trigger, but you can be held accountable for actions related to other deaths or crimes.

        This is my point with the gender reversal above. There are cases where, if you reverse the roles, it would readily be rolled up as anything under ‘coersion’, ‘verbal assault’, ‘sexual assault’, ‘hate crime’, etc. And not like libertarians are 100% in support of criminalizing all of those things all the time, there could certainly be extenuating circumstances where they would 100% support them.

        Did he reach out to someone besides his girlfriend for help? Did she threaten to take any action in retaliation to his reaching out? It’s pretty easy to brainwash and/or torture someone without physically touching them and libertarians are hardly supportive of those things in private or public contexts.

      2. Also, I’m kinda against holding the mob boss guilty if he didn’t pull the trigger but, given the above, I think we’re mostly on the same page.

  14. I’m kind of mixed on this one. As someone who has been suicidal while suffering from major clinical depression, I’m glad my ex didn’t encourage me to kill myself. She regrets it. But I don’t. I probably would have. In fact I know I would not be alive today if she had told me to do it. Like I said, she is very unhappy about this and seriously regrets a missed opportunity. People in such a state are very vulnerable. It’s not like walking up to someone on the street and saying “Hey dude, go kill yourself.” So I’m mixed.

    1. Fact is that had she told me to do it while I was in that state, I would be dead. Now if she told me to kill myself I’d tell her to get fucked. Fuck, if she said hello I’d tell her to get fucked. What else do you say to someone who tells you their major regret is not encouraging you to kill yourself?

    2. I’m surprised you guys haven’t chimed in on telling me you wished she had spoken up. I know I have no friends here.

      1. It’s a slow day.

      2. >>>Fuck, if she said hello I’d tell her to get fucked.

        assuming deep down you knew this was the truth the whole time … no chick is worth that

      3. I thought about it but… wasn’t really feeling it.

      4. Honestly, your confession is a little weird and TMI.

      5. Bitch, nobody has friends here.
        This is no place to go fishing for pity.
        If you do something to yourself because someone told you to, that’s on you.
        You do you.

        Also,
        Learn to code!

        1. What a charming thread this is !!!

          Large numbers of loathsome people,
          commenting on a loathsome person,
          who convinced a sick person to kill himself.

          If only we knew how to code……

          1. You should learn. To code.

            1. Like I need yet another hobby…..

              1. You should kill yourself, grb.
                You’re the only loathsome one here

                1. Unlike Ms Carter, you’re not very persuasive…..

    3. As someone who has stared that particular elephant right in the eye, I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself.

  15. Back when this story broke I said that she shouldn’t spend a day in jail and I haven’t seen an argument since then that changes my mind.

    He had agency, and made a choice. If you’re going to argue that his mental health changes that, then her mental health (she had major issues too) has to be considered.

    Forget prison time. Her conviction should be overturned.

  16. This is a fascinating case because it can be viewed from so many different perspectives. Free speech. Liability arising from one’s actions. Child culpability versus adult culpability. Mental illness and mental competence. She could even be viewed as an accessory to a crime — someone else’s self-murder.

    1. Isn’t criminalization of suicide a violation of the 5th amendment?

  17. They were both “young persons”. We all know why that term is used instead of “adult”. Why was this “mentally ill, vulnerable, young person” wandering around without supervision, dragging this young woman into this emotionally traumatic and dangerous situation? Where were the ADULTS? Why was he allowed to interact with this young woman and get HER in so much trouble through HIS actions? Where were the adults (the real adults who hadn’t been “adult” for a matter of weeks or months), supervising her, helping her with her mental illness, protecting her from his mental illness, supervising him, helping him with his mental illness, protecting him from her mental illness? I note she can be viewed as “adult” when they want to stick her with a criminal charge, but she still can’t buy a beer.

    We could turn this around. HER life would not have been derailed in this fashion, if it was not for her association with HIM, so, in a sense, HE bears some liability for the damage to HER life. Maybe she should sue his parents. Who left this “mentally ill, vulnerable, young person” to wander around on his own creating this kind of havoc?

    I too often find that when teens go off the rails, that they suffer the wrath of adults who failed to properly care for them, while adults who truly bore a great responsibility in the situation, like PARENTS — are never mentioned.

  18. If his suicidal bent is “mental illness”, why isn’t her sadistic bent also “mental illness”? Two mentally ill teens meeting in the night, seeking each other out. What could possibly go wrong?! Is that not discrimination against her as the woman, the survivor, and because we show a bias towards a teen with a mental illness of a suicidal depression and a bias against a teen with a mental illness of a sadistic nature? Because, I think we all look at that young woman’s actions and think to ourselves, “that girl is whacked!”. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck… The kid is looney toons, cocoa puffs.

    And, when mental illness comes into play, we ignore it when it’s convenient, and play it up when it’s convenient. We note the suicide, but treat the sadist like “…there’s no mental illness here, move along folks, move along.” There were two victims here, two mentally ill, vulnerable young people (adults? teens? kids?). One is more like-able than the other, because he’s dead now, and his illness is more socially acceptable.

  19. I wonder if she gets phone calls, internet access or mail service in prison? Who knows how many people she might kill while sitting in prison. She is like the dark villain of a Marvel comic book, exercising her mind control over her helpless victim.

    Or, maybe her powers are greatly exaggerated.

  20. No rational person would kill themselves because someone told them to do it, unless they were using serious coercion like threats to their family. He killed himself because he was mentally ill. She did not cause his mental illness. He could not cope with the challenges of his life due to his mental illness. She was one of those challenges. But, she did not cause his death. She could have said those exact same words to someone else and they would not have killed themselves.

    1. Four Points:

      (1) There’s may not be a law to cover her conduct, but what she did was contemptible to a stomach-churning degree. Painting her as victim is a bit of a reach.

      (2) I’m sure his parents have regrets. Personally, I’d be reluctant to cast a stone in that direction.

      (3) I didn’t follow the trial, but assume she was prosecuted on this basis : The boy who killed himself had diminished capacity over his decisions and actions; she had full legal capacity over her decisions and actions. Even given that was the legal justification & factual true, I’m still not certain on the law. For instance, if you let a small child or Alzheimer patient wander into traffic and die, are you legally liable? Even if you have no formal responsibility for them? What if you encourage them?

      (4) The starting point would be her as legally capable. I’m not a lawyer, but know that covers a lot of ground – including real sociopathic behavior. Presumably there was evidence of that at the trial, one way or the other.

    2. Apply the same logic.

      “You pulled his IV out and he died.”

      “I didn’t cause his illness. If I had pulled an IV out of a healthy person nothing would have happened.”

      Aha you say words are not deeds right? Wrong. Learn something about depression and psychiatry. Her words are what killed him as surely as a stab wound could and she knew it.

      She took advantage of a sick vulnerable person for her own twisted pleasure.

      This has nothing to do with any of the bullshit about the constitution above.

      1. Bullshit, slaver.

  21. If your friends girlfriend told you to jump off a bridge get back in the CO-filled car, would you?

    Yes, verily.

  22. We said this was bad precedent at the time, so not surprised it turned out to be bad precedent.

  23. If she had demanded her boyfriend kill someone else I doubt many would argue it wasn’t a crime. I see no reason why it should be any different just because she made him murder himself.

  24. “. . . telling someone they should kill themselves is not the same as holding a gun to their head and pulling the trigger.”

    I suppose that’s why the sentence wasn’t as long as it would have been with the gun-to-the-head. That in no way makes it logical to insist that there should have been no legal consequence at all.

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  27. Her actions should not be punished by the state, but by the people. It would be entirely appropriate for her to spend the rest of her life as a pariah.

    -jcr

  28. Having lost a family member to suicide, I would like to opine here. Suicide is always a choice. No one can make someone take their own own life. The only person responsible for a suicide is the person who commits suicide. Not cyberbullies. Not a mean boss. Not an abusive spouse. Not mean friends. Not family members. Suicide is a selfish act because people who commit suicide do not think – or care – about the consequences of their act. The people left behind are the ones who have to deal with those consequences.

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