Imagine coming across an abandoned cabin after being stranded on account of an avalanche. Finding it unoccupied, you break into the home to take shelter. The question of morality and legality is present here; it may be illegal to enter a home unlawfully, but morally there is no harm done. One of the most prominent and controversial cases of 2017 within the realm of morality vs legality has been the trial of Michelle Carter. Her case centered around the death of her then boyfriend Conrad Roy, who committed suicide on July 13, 2014. Carter had sent a string of text messages to Roy, eventually supporting and encouraging his decision to commit suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning. She was officially sentenced to a 2.5 year sentence, only having to serve fifteen months of it and five years of probation on August 3, 2017. (1) What many people found controversial about the sentencing was that many people felt she deserved more time for, as many people put it, a “Death by Text” situation. (2)
Those who disagree with the ruling argue that Carter did not kill Roy. According to an opinion article written in the New York Times by Robby Soave titled “Michelle Carter Didn’t Kill With a Text,” he states, “In either case, Ms. Carter’s conduct was morally reprehensible. But — at least until today’s ruling — it was clearly legal. 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.” (3)
Others believe Carter’s punishment is too light, stating that she acted intentionally knowing Roy could end his life through her advice. Ben Matos, who was interviewed by the Boston Globe in an article titled “In Michelle Carter’s hometown, opinions vary on justice of her sentence,” stated that Carter should have been prosecuted further. “Just the fact that she encouraged him to commit suicide,” he said. “A juvenile is treated differently, but at 17 you’re pretty much an adult. You should be treated like the rest.” (4) The vendetta comes down to morality vs legality; it is clear that her actions were not moralistic, but do they merit criminal sanction?
COMPARABLE TO CYBERBULLYING?
Many people draw parallels between this case and cyberbullying. Currently there are no federal cyberbullying laws; many states have passed cyberbullying laws, but most only apply to school-related offenses and many do not involve criminal sanctions. (5) According to the StopBullying.gov website, cyberbullying messages are only taken on by schools if they are (6):
- Severe, pervasive and or persistent
- Create a hostile environment at school. That is, it is sufficiently serious that it interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school
- Based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion
It is clear Carter knew what she was doing and that she was encouraging Roy to commit suicide. According to CNN’s transcript of the text messages, they included messages like, “You’re gonna have to prove me wrong because I just don’t think you really want this. You just keep pushing it off to another night and say you’ll do it but you never do,”and “It’s probably the best time now because everyone’s sleeping. Just go somewhere in your truck. And no one’s really out right now because it’s an awkward time.” (7) Currently, there are no laws which prosecute or criminalize text messages that aid the idea of committing suicide like the ones Carter sent. I argue that there should be some criminal sanction created to prosecute those who knowingly encourage someone to commit suicide or otherwise cause harm to themselves or others, especially considering Roy suffered from depression and thus was particularly vulnerable to Carter’s pervasive influence.
While the first amendment and the right to free speech is something that should be protected for all Americans, a line has to be drawn when a knowing adult such as Michelle Carter encourages someone to commit suicide in a pervasive and consistent manner. Allowing for criminal sanction through a federal law that recognizes the abuses of free speech in causing or supporting harm on another person, while also calling for mental illness aid for such behavior will hopefully curb the amount of people who decide to also do this, as well as allow for the victims of the actions (including friends and family members) to receive closure and justice for the person who committed this act. The potential harm to free expression does not outweigh the cost to human life that cyber-bullying often entails.
If you or anyone you know is dealing with suicide or suicidal thoughts, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Go to StopBullying.gov for more information on cyber-bullying and bullying legislation in your state.