Having had the night to sleep on it, I wanted to take a moment today to offer a different perspective on the Michelle Carter verdict than the sentiments expressed by Allahpundit yesterday. While he’s clearly aware of the dubious nature of the conviction in legal terms, I can sympathize with the concept of viewing a person who clearly acted in a reprehensible fashion which ended up involving the death of a loved one and really wanting to find some way for society to punish her. But this verdict seems to lack a lot of the elements of other laws involving indirect action in a criminal enterprise which were brought up.
Allahpundit floated the following points from the purely legal side of things.
There are examples under the law where mere words are criminally actionable — the mob boss who orders a hit, the cult leader who encourages his disciples to kill, the nut who utters a “true threat” against his target — but the law worries about those cases because the speaker himself is reasonably presumed to be capable of violence. No one thinks Carter was going to try to kill Roy if he hadn’t done it himself. What she’s guilty of, essentially, is a form of insidious psychological bullying.
As AP goes on to note, most of these alternate scenarios are markedly different from what happened the night Roy died. A mob boss ordering a murder has agency in a plan to take the life of another. The cult leader argument is even weaker since it’s rather dubious (in my mind) that he or she has the same level of agency over their followers. He also suggests other possibilities such as conspiracy charges or possibly a case of being an accessory before the fact. All of these rely on our willingness to treat a suicide as a murder… in this case, the murder of one’s self.
To deflate that argument I would point to David French’s excellent column at National Review which AP also linked to. In it, French makes this part of the argument better than I did when I was originally urging the judge to toss this case. What the judge ignored here was the fact that Conrad Roy was the sole arbiter in whether he lived or died and no amount of external prodding changed that fact.
Conrad Roy is responsible for his death. To argue that Carter committed manslaughter is to diminish Roy’s moral agency. It denies his free will. It’s wrong to deny compassion to someone so troubled that they’d attempt suicide, but we can’t move so far in the other direction that we race to find who’s “really” to blame when a person voluntarily takes their own life. It’s still an act of self-murder, and while Carter undoubtedly played a persuasive role, I can’t imagine where we will draw the line. Will we prosecute mean people for manslaughter when troubled teens kill themselves?
That’s the bottom line. This is, in essence, a thought crime which Michelle Carter has been convicted of. It’s something that liberals tend to drool over when they are falsely claiming that the First Amendment doesn’t cover “hate speech” and that you should be held responsible if your own opinions hurt someone else’s feelings. Granted, far more than feelings wound up being hurt in the case of Conrad Roy, but the principle stands.
If someone on Twitter tells you to DIAF (“die in a fire” which I’ve been guilty of tweeting a couple of times) they might be accused of being a shockingly rude or offensive boor. But if you are actually unstable or self-destructive enough to turn around and self-immolate then you had some serious, unresolved issues long before the offensive tweeter came up on your radar.
I generally try to steer clear of most slippery slope arguments, but this case is one of the exceptions where it’s a frighteningly tangible prospect. If we allow the courts to begin absolving individuals of their personal responsibility for their own actions and lay the blame at the feet of others based solely on their thoughts, words or (in this case) text messages, the First Amendment has taken a massive broadside. From there it’s a short stroll to jailing people for expressing opinions on a host of subjects which others may find so offensive that it disconnects them from reality entirely.
I hate being the one who comes off looking as if they are defending the monster. And to be clear, Michelle Carter’s text messages were monstrous. But she still needs to be set free.