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.


Joshua Mcdonough |

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.