Michelle Carter, Free Speech & Shifting Perceptions Of Suicide
Sept. 11, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Prosecutors in Massachusetts have charged teenager Michelle Carter with involuntary manslaughter leading to the death of her boyfriend Conrad Roy III. Roy, 18, died of apparently self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning in his truck parked in a K-Mart parking lot in July, 2014. Prosecutors say that Carter assisted him with planning his suicide, even going as far as pressuring her friend to go through with the plan when he hesitated.
But before you start brainstorming nicknames for Carter like “the baby black widow” or “the girl grim reaper,” or hauling out sundry allusions to the movie “Heathers,” you might want to take a closer look at the case.
Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones . . .
What exactly do prosecutors claim is Carter’s criminal conduct?
Text messages. Phone conversations. Speech. The Commonwealth’s case relies on thousands of text messages sent between Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy before his death, as well as texts Carter later sent to another friend, allegedly recounting Carter’s involvement in Roy’s suicide.
No one alleges that Michelle Carter physically forced Conrad Roy into the cab of his pickup truck filled with lethal amounts of carbon monoxide. No one alleges that she bought the equipment for him. Rather, she talked to him. She exchanged text messages with him.
That’s some mighty powerful digital communication.
Generally, the First Amendment prohibits the government from punishing speech. The Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law [ . . . ] abridging the freedom of speech,” but only blessed few free-speech purists like United States Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas have interpreted “no law” to mean what it says.
The Supreme Court, for good or ill, has found certain categories of expression to fall outside of First Amendment protection. Among these categorical exceptions is speech that aims to incite “imminent lawless action.” Under Brandenburg v. Ohio, you can’t run around urging folks to commit crimes and expect the government to give you a pass.
So, if Michelle Carter had used her words to incite her boyfriend to murder a third-party, then she’d have a big problem on her hands. However, since suicide is not unlawful in Massachusetts, it’s the Commonwealth that appears to have the problem. If what Michelle Carter incited was imminent lawful — albeit awful — action, what justifies criminalizing her speech?
Speaking Of Speech, What Else Did Carter Say?
Media reports have plucked plenty of juicy one-liners from court documents and transcripts of the text messages. With each quote, Michelle Carter looks more monstrous. However, the transcripts also support a different narrative for those bothering to look.
Carter did not introduce the idea of suicide to Roy, who allegedly attempted to take his own life before, had been hospitalized at a psychiatric facility, and took psychotropic medication. Neither did Carter initially support Roy’s idea. In June 2014, weeks before Roy’s death, Carter appears to have encouraged him to seek professional mental health treatment for his depression.
At the time, Michelle Carter herself was receiving treatment from McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility affiliated with Harvard Medical School. The reason for her psychiatric care has not been disclosed to the public. In any case, Carter invited Roy to join her in getting help at McLean. Conrad Roy refused.
“You just need to do it, Conrad, or I’m gonna get you help. You can’t keep doing this everyday.”
What evidence is there that Michelle Carter intended to strong-arm Conrad Roy into a lethal act, versus support and comfort him in a choice she believed was authentically his own?
If the latter possibility seems absurd, consider how mainstream values about suicide and assisted suicide are in flux — if not always completely coherent — at the moment.
Compassion toward people who end their lives through suicide has rapidly grown, even as suicide remains a generally terrible thing. Journalism style guides, such as the updated Associated Press version, instruct media reports to use more sensitive language to describe deaths by suicide. Once ashamed, families now choose more often to disclose publicly that their loved one’s death was intentional. Even outside of religious communities like the Roman Catholic Church, much of mainstream America once recoiled in horror at suicide as a mortal sin, self-murder. Increasingly, people address suicide as a mental health issue, not as a sign of moral depravity.
For example, when Robin Williams took his own life last year, fans mourned the comedian and actor largely without public condemnation. They grieved over the anguish that Williams likely felt leading up to his death. But plenty of folks acknowledged his choice as one to which he was entitled, even if they really wished that he hadn’t made it.
Likewise, when Brittany Maynard took an intentionally lethal dose of barbiturates in November, 2014, she invigorated the nationwide debate over physician-assisted death and euthanasia. The young woman, diagnosed with a particularly pernicious form of brain cancer, spoke candidly and compellingly with the public about her choice to exercise her rights under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.
Many of Carter’s messages suggest that she vacillated between believing that her boyfriend was actually going to follow through with another suicide attempt and feeling frustrated and ineffectual in any efforts to help him break free of his suicidal fantasies.
After Conrad Roy’s death, Carter told her friend Samantha Boardman via text:
“And that night I knew he was going to do it and a part of me thought he wasn’t going to like always but when he stopped talking to me on the phone, like, I knew he did it, and a couple of days before leading up to it I guess I kind of let him do it. I started giving up because whatever I said I knew I couldn’t change his mind so we talked about it and about how I’ll take care of his family when he’s gone and all of that.
[ . . . ]
I didn’t want to be mad at him anymore because I knew he was going to do it so I knew yelling at him wouldn’t help. I wanted him to die knowing that I accepted it and that I loved him. … I told him it was okay to do it because he was miserable and I knew he would always be in pain and I just couldn’t stand to see him like that anymore. I told him he’d be free and happy in heaven. I wanted him to leave knowing he wasn’t selfish for doing it.
[ . . . ]
Like, I read the thing online where it said if you agree with the person then it makes them realize how stupid they’re being and so they’ll stop it but it didn’t work and I just don’t know.”
Don’t get me wrong: even under the most charitable version of events, Michelle Carter is one of the world’s lousiest suicide hotline counselors.
However, it’s hard enough for well-adjusted adults to figure out what to think about the issue of intentionally ending one’s own life. How much harder would it be for a 17-year-old girl with her own mental health struggles to strike the proper balance between respect, compassion, and the threat of a close friend’s early death?
Prosecuting Michelle Carter threatens the First Amendment, overlooks important facts, and asks too much of a troubled young woman in confusing circumstances. And, while it may provide a temporary distraction from the sorrow of losing a son or brother to suicide, prosecuting Michelle Carter won’t bring back Conrad Roy.