Texting, Suicide, and the Law: The case against punishing Michelle Carter

London and New York: Routledge (2019)

Authors
Mark Tunick
Florida Atlantic University
Abstract
Through a series of texts and phone calls, Michelle Carter encouraged her boyfriend Conrad Roy to act on his suicidal thoughts, and after Roy killed himself, Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The case has received widespread attention, generating reactions ranging from rage at Ms. Carter to disbelief that she was convicted. An issue emphasized up to now is what it might mean for the First Amendment right of free speech if we hold that words can kill. In presenting the case against punishing Ms. Carter, I show how the free speech issue intertwines with several others: Should the intimate exchanges between Carter and Roy have remained private? While privacy is valuable, it should not be a shield for harmful conduct, but did Ms. Carter, through her words, cause harm? If she believed that suicide would relieve Conrad of unbearable suffering, did she even act badly? And should the fact that society judges an individual’s actions to be immoral mean that the individual should be legally punished? The case serves as a touchstone for addressing fundamental issues of political, moral and legal theory with implications broader than whether Ms. Carter goes to prison.
Keywords privacy  suicide  punishment  liberal pluralism  freedom of speech  retribution  utilitarianism  coercion  causation
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