There are lessons to be taken from the tragic death of Conrad Roy III, but they will never be learned if the “experts” who ought to know better try to make some kind of martyr to free speech of Michelle Carter, the young woman who now stands convicted of involuntary manslaughter in his death.
Carter is due back in court Monday, when prosecutors will ask that she finally begin serving her 15-month sentence.
Carter’s conviction was upheld in a unanimous ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, which concluded that the then 17-year-old had “badgered” her 18-year-old boyfriend into committing suicide in 2014.
Yes, Carter was some 30 miles away at the time. She didn’t hand him a gun or a bottle of pills. But this is the way Justice Scott Kafker, writing for the court, described those final moments in his decision:
“. . . In this weakened state he [Roy] was badgered back into the gas-infused truck by the defendant, his girlfriend and closest, if not only, confidant in this suicidal planning, the person who had been constantly pressuring him to complete their often discussed plan, fulfill his promise to her, and finally commit suicide. And then after she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide-filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die.”
True respect for the First Amendment, and the concept of free speech, means calling out those who twist and contort it — whether to give corporations rights they don’t deserve or try to excuse criminal conduct that just happens to involve uttering words.
It’s a distinction lost on the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which filed an amicus brief on Carter’s behalf, and shows no signs of giving up on its misguided insistence that the court “has handed prosecutors broad, undefined powers that diminish the speech rights of everyone in Massachusetts,” as legal director Matt Segal put it in a statement.
“The Court’s decision tells prosecutors that they can bring charges against individuals based on arbitrary and subjective determinations of what speech is noble and what speech is criminal,” he added.
And he continued to insist — against all evidence to the contrary — that “prosecutorial power will chill important and loving end-of-life discussions between family members, and could lead to erroneous convictions of children who engage in reckless juvenile conversations with friends.”
In fact, the court was quite specific in pointing out, “This case does not involve the prosecution of end-of-life discussions between a doctor, family member, or friend and a mature, terminally ill adult . . . Nor does it involve prosecutions of general discussions about euthanasia or suicide targeting the ideas themselves.”
Roy was, of course, deeply troubled, but not suffering from a terminal illness — not terminal, that is, until Carter, as the court noted, “helped plan how, where, and when” Roy would take his own life.
Two families have had to deal with this tragedy — but one of them has suffered an irreparable loss. There is no broader issue here. The SJC made clear: “We are . . . not punishing words alone . . . but reckless or wanton words causing death.”
This case came about as close to crying fire in a crowded theater as it gets —
without actually crying fire in a crowded theater. Civil libertarians should be the first to cheer courts when they reserve the protections of the First Amendment for their intended purpose.