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.
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