Perspectives: Michelle Carter should not be held criminally responsible for her boyfriend’s death

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OPINION – Last week a 20-year-old Massachusetts woman was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for sending numerous texts to her suicidal boyfriend, urging him to kill himself. Michelle Carter was 17 when she made dozens of taunting phone calls and texts to her unstable 18-year-old boyfriend as his vehicle filled with carbon monoxide.

She never attempted to notify the authorities or her boyfriend’s parents. Carter’s case was tried in juvenile court and in June she was adjudicated guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

As can be expected, the case has generated sensational headlines and lots of social media buzz. Stories like this are a slam dunk for a news media that banks on stories based in fear and outrage to generate clicks and shares.

Of course, the public isn’t exactly known for thoughtful contemplation when emotions are running high. And few things get our emotions running higher than someone being bullied.

The prospect of a bully receiving his or her just desserts is satisfying. In this case, it’s also short-sighted.

The greater tragedy to emerge from this horrific example of inhumanity is found in how many people are cheering the judge’s decision to send Michelle Carter to prison over her words, not her actions.

The legal precedent established by this sentence may have deeper implications for free speech that those cheering have not considered.

No one is defending what Carter did in encouraging a disturbed young man to end his life. No one is making the case that what she did wasn’t wrong on many levels.

The concern that’s being raised is whether her words alone are sufficient to justify criminal charges and prison time.

Carter’s boyfriend had a long history of suicidal tendencies stemming from depression over his parents’ divorce and being physically and verbally abused. He had been researching methods of suicide online.

The action he took to end his life was ultimately his decision. Had Carter furnished the implements, turned the key or physically prevented him from leaving his truck, she would have been an active participant.

Instead, she was a malevolent cheerleader urging him on from the sidelines.

The unpopular truth that few are willing to consider is that she is not responsible for his actions – he is.

Her words did not create the physical circumstances that ultimately ended a young man’s life. His own actions and decisions did.

Unfortunately, to place legal responsibility where it properly belongs for this young man’s suicide robs us of a scapegoat and a target for us to stone publicly. That’s something few people are willing to accept.

It’s important that we don’t abandon the principle of personal responsibility just because someone was a horrible human being who said unkind things. Carter was wrong but not in a criminal sense.

If this approach to justice is allowed to take root, we’re all in for a rude awakening. And our ability to speak freely will quickly become a thing of the past.

Criminal penalties being applied to words alone would limit our freedom to speak freely out of the fear that someone might claim another’s words are responsible for their actions.

Just imagine how that will play out in a climate where so many are looking for any excuse to punish or silence those with whom they disagree.

Do you honestly believe that such an approach wouldn’t be abused?

We live in a time when hypersensitivity over what others might be thinking or saying is becoming a tool to hammer others into submission. In certain environments, merely referring to someone by a pronoun that is not what he, she or it subjectively prefers to hear can land a person in hot water.

Are we certain that we want to open the door to criminal penalties for anyone accused of speaking unkindly? Remember, we have laws that already cover defamation, libel and slander.

Civil remedies exist for those who can show harm that doesn’t meet the level of a criminal act. Perhaps this is where justice would have been better sought than in criminal court.

What happened in this case was tragic and atrocious but did not require a criminal conviction to satisfy justice. It should serve as a powerful object lesson for the rest of us to consider how we treat others and to embrace the Golden Rule as necessary in our own lives.

Michelle Carter has made a terrible and very public mistake for which she will likely pay a price for the rest of her life.

We needn’t punish everyone’s free speech in a misguided attempt to make us feel as though we’re somehow making the world a better place.

It may be time to change the ditty we learned as kids about how sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us. In reality, words can now land us in prison.

Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events viewed through the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: bryanh@stgnews.com

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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14 Comments

  • dak4 August 7, 2017 at 8:00 am

    I don’t know if this is an attempt to get people engaged by making ridiculous and outlandish statements but I couldn’t disagree more. Take a look at statute 76-5-107. Although a violation of that statute is only a class B, your words can absolutely get you in trouble with the law. If he is mentally unstable and she is ACTIVELY encouraging/manipulating him to kill himself AFTER he expressed a desire to not follow through, she shares some of the blame and should go to prison.

  • NickDanger August 7, 2017 at 8:22 am

    Semantics.

    The writer is very interested in the difference between words and action. Well here’s some good information for you, Brian, that might prevent you in the future from adopting such a morally-reprehensible, contrarian position as the one you’ve taken here: Speaking, writing, or texting words constitutes an action.

    It’s widely accepted that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater isn’t protected “free speech.” Why? It’s just speech. It’s not an action. Or is it? It certainly gets a RE-action.

    As did this young lady’s texts.

    It’s interesting to be living in the current era, when voice-activation exists. I could set off a horrible chain of events simply by speaking into a device – a series of explosions, or an avalanche. Am I protected by the Constitution because I set off these events by speaking words instead of pushing a button or pulling a trigger?

    What if I make a phone call to a hitman and verbally give him the “green light” to perform an assassination? Am I protected then? I’ve taken no action, only spoken words.

    This little essay here is just…a warped perspective grounded in rote legalism. What this girl did to this boy hurts the soul, it hurts all of mankind – to have a member of our species who is capable of pushing someone to suicide just for attention. It’s offensive on so many levels that I, for one, am disappointed in the leniency of the sentence applied to this awful person.

    And you, Mr. Hyde, are quite wrong in your opinion, and should re-evaluate your position.

  • DRT August 7, 2017 at 8:41 am

    Did you bother to check the Massachusetts law before writing this? I may be wrong, but I am believing that it says something such as assisting or encouraging suicide is not legal. If that is in fact the case, then this little snot is quite clearly guilty.
    Before you go off on free speech here, stop and consider that certain types of speech, (such as yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater or night club, when in fact there is no reason to believe that there actually is a fire) is against the law, as well as it is against common sense. Other instances, such as someone representing himself as a law enforcement officer, when he is not, is illegal. I could go on here with a long list of things that are nothing more than “free speech,” but you either get it, or you don’t.
    Now I have not heard of this case, until you brought it up. So I can’t say I know anything about it, all I can do is read your article. But from what I read here, it sounds like she got what she deserved..

  • ladybugavenger August 7, 2017 at 9:01 am

    Law or not law. She is accountable for her words. She is accountable as a human being to not encourage suicide. The saying, if you were told to jump off a bridge, would you? I suppose if a person who is suicidal and that was their form of suicide, then they would jump off that bridge and the person who told them to jump off a bridge has a personal accountability of encouraging such an act. We are our brothers keeper. To encourage such a thing as suicide is not human. It’s cold and calloused. And I don’t care how old she is. She is cold as ice.

  • desertgirl August 7, 2017 at 9:03 am

    Her intent was to and did result in a crime. She was complicit in a violent act against another being. This sociopath didn’t say I don’t care, go ahead and move on; she repeated her vile actions over and over; intent, intent, intent.

    I believe we have far too many laws in this country; I don’t support snowflakes and freedom of speech haters. However, listening to you, Brian, and others, maybe we need a law to protect the mentally and emotionally disturbed from sociopaths and psychopaths. Encouraging a person with an illness to kill themselves should be a crime. This is another sad example of how society does not take seriously that mental emotional illness are just that….illness.

  • Brian August 7, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Many times I agree with Bryan, but in this instance I completely disagree. Her intent was clearly to cause him to end his life, and her actions (even if only verbal) had a direct impact on that outcome. Yes, he is absolutely responsible for his own actions, and she is responsible for hers.

    If I design a voice-activated bomb and place it in a public place with a speaker, then call in remotely to that speaker and trigger the bomb to go off, am I somehow innocent because I used mere words to activate it? Of course not.

    Her speech is in no way protected, and neither should it be. She absolutely committed a crime and was complicit in his death.

  • comments August 7, 2017 at 11:16 am

    Got to agree with the others on this. Bry flopped hard on this one. It’d be like if I called someone and begged them to physically harm or kill a person. I’d be complicit in whatever crime went down. Also, not sure if extreme verbal bullying and verbal harassment/tormenting is actually free speech. I wish idiocy and regurgitating non-facts like some kind of loony right-wing robot wasn’t free speech (that’s for you “commonsense”. you’re beyond fixing, you old nutter you, hahah 😉 )

  • Travis August 7, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    “In certain environments, merely referring to someone by a pronoun that is not what he, she or it subjectively prefers to hear…” It ? I agreed completely with everything you said, but THIS phrase !

  • Travis August 7, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Brian, this is the comparison you use – placing a BOMB and the TRIGGER is voice-activated? WOW, it’s a bomb! It is no different than the Boston bombers using cell phones as their TRIGGERS. I am “speechless”, but I can still type.

    “If I design a voice-activated bomb and place it in a public place with a speaker, then call in remotely to that speaker and trigger the bomb to go off, am I somehow innocent because I used mere words to activate it?”

    • Brian August 7, 2017 at 2:19 pm

      Here are some simpler examples of mere speech that isn’t protected: yelling fire in a crowded theater (already mentioned and obvious), using only spoken words to try to arrange a “hit” on someone, asking your massage therapist for a “happy ending”, discussing price with a prostitute, making a solely verbal threat against POTUS.

      Bryan, the list of non-protected speech is long enough to be undefinable, partly because it can’t be defined. There isn’t a specific place you can draw the line, because every case is different. Much of our law is that way, which is why juries and unbiased, sane judges are critical. In this case I think the judge got it right.

      • comments August 7, 2017 at 3:30 pm

        Aww, imagine if blasphemy against your holy mormon lds church was unprotected. Your whining would send me to jail (or death?). Funny thought. Back in king Brigham’s day that’s how it was.

        • ladybugavenger August 7, 2017 at 8:24 pm

          They have evolved. I remember in high school this LDS girl couldn’t drink soda because it was against the religion. Remember that? Or was she lying? LDS religion evolves. I suppose it’s no different than catholic or other religions,

          • Brian August 8, 2017 at 9:21 am

            She or her family may have interpreted it that way, but that was a personal choice and not doctrine (then or now).

  • Whatteverrr August 7, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    Read NIGHT FALLS FAST by Kay Redfield Jamison.
    People have been commiting suicide since life began.
    Every culture, everywhere on this planet.
    And the rates are going up drastically
    Other countries have legalized suicide regardless of terminal health issues.
    His LIFE – His CHOICE.
    As it should be.

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