The First Amendment does not protect the verbal conduct of a defendant who continually urged another person to kill himself, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has ruled in the high-profile case of Michelle Carter.

Carter, when she was 17, sent a series of text messages to her 18-year-old friend Conrad Roy, who had a history of suicide attempts. Carter sent text messages, such as “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it!” Roy eventually did kill himself in 2014 by ingesting carbon monoxide. 

The state charged Carter with involuntary manslaughter. She was convicted. On appeal, she again argued that her conviction violated the First Amendment. 

Court rules that verbal conduct was integral to teen's criminal conduct

The Massachusetts high court rejected her First Amendment argument, writing that her speech was an integral part of her criminal conduct.  In fact, the court used the phrase “verbal conduct” rather than speech.   

“The only verbal conduct punished as involuntary manslaughter has been the wanton or reckless pressuring of a vulnerable person to commit suicide, overpowering that person’s will to live and resulting in that person’s death,” the court wrote in its Feb. 6, 2019, opinion in Commonwealth v. Carter.  “We are therefore not punishing words alone, as the defendant claims, but reckless or wanton words causing death.  The speech at issue is thus integral to a course of criminal conduct and thus does not raise any constitutional problem.” 

Court says many crimes involve speech, including true threats, child enticement

The court emphasized that there are many crimes which involve speech.  For example, persons can be convicted of child enticement or a true threat by their speech.  The court also emphasized that it was not punished end-of-life discussions as might be held between a person, their family members, and treating physician or general discussions about euthanasia or suicide.  Instead, the court posited that it was focused on a course of verbal conduct that specifically caused a young person to take his life. 

Carter argued that any such prohibition on words must survive strict scrutiny, the highest form of judicial review which requires the state to show it has a compelling interest advanced in a very narrowly tailored way. 

The Massachusetts high court reasoned that, even if strict scrutiny is applied, the government meets that standard.  “Only the wanton or reckless pressuring of a person to commit suicide that overpowers that person’s will to live has been proscribed,” the court wrote.  “The restriction is necessary to further the Commonwealth’s compelling interest in preserving life.”