Last week, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Michelle Carter, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter based on text messages that led her boyfriend to commit suicide in 2014. Carter, who was 17 at the time, was accused of bullying Conrad Roy into taking his own life. Evidence in Carter's trial included numerous text messages where she urged Roy to kill himself via carbon monoxide.
The incident drew significant attention to the issue of cyberbullying, a problem that, sadly, doesn't seem to be going anywhere in today's climate. But, it also presents intriguing questions about the scope of First Amendment free speech.
The case represented a landmark in Massachusetts jurisprudence - the state had never previously brought manslaughter charges based on texting. However, Carter's repeated messages to Roy, including making him promise to kill himself and urging him to get back in his vehicle when the carbon monoxide fumes began to overwhelm him, were enough for a juvenile court judge to find her guilty. She was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.
Free speech advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that specific intent is required for a crime consisting of speech alone - and that without it, the conviction was unconstitutional. Moreover, some worry that Carter's conviction could lead to the prosecution of end-of-life discussions between loved ones or doctors and patients.
In affirming Carter's conviction, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found Carter's speech was "integral to criminal conduct," and thus did not qualify for First Amendment protection. The court pointed to historical involuntary manslaughter cases in Massachusetts, which include "overpowering [another] person's will to live and resulting in a person's death" as a criminal act.
The Massachusetts legislature has taken that idea a step further, introducing a law in July that would impose new criminal liability on those who encourage or coerce someone to suicide. The bill was debated in November and has already won praise for clearly setting out what acts amount to suicide coercion - and perhaps more importantly, what acts do not. Cases like Carter's show that there are gaps in legislation that need addressing, and for now, the Supreme Court is leaving the filling of those gaps up to the states.