We all know the limitations to free speech; don’t yell “fire” in a movie theater, threaten a someone or commit copyright infringement. What might not be as well known is that sending a simple text that says “do it” can be just as illegal and sometimes even more harmful.
While it’s hard to imagine typical teenage text messages being infiltrated by cyber bullies urging suicide, it has happened before. In July, 2014, Michelle Carter encouraged her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to commit suicide. Roy’s body was found on July 13, 2014, according to cnn.com.
Carter was sentenced to 15 months in jail, with a period of supervised probation as well. Carter’s text messages were the incriminating evidence that caused her to be sentenced for involuntary manslaughter, along with the fact that she did not call the police or alert anyone to Roy’s intentions, according to cnn.com.
The First Amendment’s free speech clause was created to allow the expression of one’s opinions without the fear of persecution. Over time, the interpretation has evolved to the needs of the modern-day world, compelling the government to make exceptions to free speech. This includes speech causing violence and harm, which was utilized in Carter’s conviction.
Free speech doesn’t and shouldn’t apply to communication expressed with the intent to cause harm. Carter’s imprisonment was justified in this aspect because it resulted in the death of Roy. Speech that is harmful to others is never productive, and never necessary in everyday circumstances. It only serves to perpetuate racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.
Though the rise of the Internet has caused communication to evolve in ways once deemed impossible, it has enabled this behavior even further. People are able to attack others through technology and expect no consequences because the victims are just screen names and not people. This mindset often has destructive effects on mental health and sometimes fatal consequences.
Nowadays, we don’t need free speech to protect us from government censorship as much as we used to; instead we interpret it as freedom of expression. However, when people use their freedom of expression to hurt others, it is not acceptable.
Sending a text urging suicide is no different than handing the recipient a noose. The sender is enabling someone to harm themselves through misplaced encouragement and support. The proper response to a suicidal message would be to talk them down and alert their family members and the authorities. If they don’t, they may be charged for involuntary manslaughter because they failed to intervene.
Neither verbal incitement to suicide nor hate speech should ever be allowed. Forfeiting the right to unregulated free speech is worth the lives it would save and the people it would protect. It brings an end to the hostility and disrespect that runs rampant in words and screens, an end to which is one step closer to peace.