In Massachusetts, a teenager was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for sending a malicious text message to her ex-boyfriend. Over at Reason.com, Sarah Rose Siskind has the story.
The victim in the case was Conrad Roy III, 18, who killed himself by locking himself in a running car and inhaling carbon monoxide fumes. His ex-girlfriend, Michelle Carter, 17, had sent him a series of goading text messages leading up to the suicide, telling him he just needed to do it.
This is not what Carter was ultimately prosecuted for, however. During Roy’s suicide attempt, he apparently got out of the car and contemplated calling it off. At this time, Carter sent him another text message to “get back in”. According to the judge, the fact that Carter encouraged the suicide created a duty for her to either call someone to help Roy or attempt to dissuade him from going through with it. She did not do either.
It’s not in dispute whether Carter sent the messages in the case. It’s also relatively clear she knew the car was filled with toxic fumes when she told Roy to “get back in”.
The question is whether any of that qualifies as a crime. As it was a bench trial, the judge made the decision. And he decided that it constituted involuntary manslaughter, which can carry a sentence of up to 20 years.
The implications of this decision are extraordinary and terrifying. It’s the latest development in the public debate over whether speech can be violence. But in a way, this ruling goes even further than most radical anti-speech positions.
Ordinarily, the push for regulating speech aims to crack down on particular unsavory types of speech, described as “hate speech”*. This would be achieved by creating new laws that outlaw said hate speech. Indeed, several European countries already have laws like this that make certain types of speech illegal.
Since the case above took place in the US, no such laws exist. The defendant wasn’t convicted for violating a law regarding hate speech or bullying or anything of the sort. Instead, the judge effectively decided that mean text messages literally killed Roy. The text messages were regarded as a deadly weapon like any other.
In turn, this means that the victim was found to have no independent agency at all. Roy didn’t decide to kill himself. Rather, he was forced to do it by text messages and, implicitly, had no say in the matter. This is the theory in spite of the fact that he faced no physical threat at all. His ex-girlfriend was not present, and no harm would have come to him for disregarding her horrible instructions.
If it holds, this ruling could be extrapolated in a number of harmful ways. Note that, in this case, Carter was found guilty for inducing the victim to commit suicide. Thus, she became responsible for actions he committed. But why should this principle be limited to suicide?
What if I insult someone and they get so infuriated that they attack me? Are they responsible for committing the crime of assault against me? Or, since my words led them to attack me, perhaps I should be guilty of committing assault against myself? These are the absurd considerations that this ruling makes possible.
*I put hate speech in quotes above because it’s a term that has no set definition. If one wishes to make laws against hate speech, a prerequisite is to have the law define precisely what counts as hate speech. Thus, the decision will ultimately be made by politicians, and it’s entirely likely that unpopular political opinions will somehow get placed on the prohibited list as well. Indeed, this is already happening.
UPDATE: A reader pointed out the judge’s exact reasoning for the verdict was somewhat more complicated than the way I summarized. CNN reported an exact quote from the judge, noting that he didn’t convict solely for the text messages. Rather, the judge claimed the text messages created a duty for Carter to seek help or dissuade the victim. However, in general, there is not a legal obligation to help someone in need, even if there may be a moral one. Thus, the judge was still treating the text messages as if they caused literal harm to victim that the defendant had an obligation to mitigate.
As such, the rest of the analysis above still stands, and this is an unprecedented and dangerous ruling criminalizing speech as violence. The details of the article above have been updated to reflect the judge’s reasoning more precisely.