The Criminalization of Speech

“If your friends told you to go jump off a cliff, would you do it?” That, broadly speaking, is every mother’s quote to her children when one of them wants to do something because ‘all of his friends are doing it.’ I would guess that almost all of us heard some version of that argument from our parents at some point in time.


But, in Massachusetts, when then 17-year-old Michelle Carter told Conrad Henri Roy III, 18, her ‘long-distance’ boyfriend, to go ahead with his planned suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning, she wound up being charged with, and then convicted of, involuntary manslaughter:

On June 16, 2017, Judge Lawrence Moniz of the Bristol County Juvenile Court of Massachusetts in Taunton found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter. He stated prior to his ruling that it was Carter’s phone calls with Roy when he was in his truck gassing himself (as described by Carter’s texts to friends), rather than the preceding text messages, that caused him to go through with killing himself. Judge Moniz found that Roy had broken the “chain of self-causation” towards his suicide when he exited the truck and that it was Carter’s wanton and reckless encouragement to then return to the truck that caused his death.

Judge Moniz then sentenced Miss Carter to 2½ years in prison, with 15 months to be served and the remainder suspended, to be followed by 5 years probation. Miss Carter was allowed to remain free through her appeals, but after the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld her conviction, she was ordered to jail. Entering prison in February of this year, Miss Carter’s petition for early release was denied by the Massachusetts Parole Board on September 20th.

As I wrote at the time, “Miss Carter cannot say anything, of course, until all 2½ years of her sentence are up. But when that time has elapsed, I hope that she tells the judge to go get f(ornicated).” Her speech, as repugnant as it was, was criminalized by Judge Moniz and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.


Well, now we have another family trying to do the same thing:

Bisexual teen dies by suicide after being outed by classmates, family says

By Karma Allen | September 30, 2019 | 9:08 PM EDT

A Tennessee teenager took his own life after being outed as bisexual by classmates who bullied him, according to his family.

Channing Smith, a 16-year-old student at Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, Tennessee, died by suicide last week, leaving his family looking for answers. The family said it reached out to the teen’s friends, classmates and social media connections and found out the shocking truth.

The teen had sent sexually explicit text messages to another boy shortly before his death. The recipient shared screenshots of the private messages with a female classmate, who released them on social media, according to his family.

Smith was not out at the time and the exposed messages led to incessant cyberbullying, the family said. He allegedly told a classmate about his plans to end his life due to the bullying, but she did not report the threats.

There’s more at the original. But this is the part that annoyed me:

The family launched a #JusticeForChanning campaign in an effort to get the Coffee County district attorney to bring charges against the students involved.

The news report indicated only “cyberbullying” of Mr Smith; no physical assaults or anything of that nature was reported. The local District Attorney has not filed any charges against anyone.


“When all relevant facts are available, my office will advise the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department on what charges, if any, we believe are appropriate to help guide it in that decision,” Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott said in a statement last week, according to the Tennesseean. “Any report that my office has failed or refused to act is inaccurate and I wanted to clarify this for the sake of the Smith family as they do not need the added burden to the already incomprehensible pain that they are experiencing.”

Northcott stirred controversy last year when he told a group of pastors he did not recognize the validity of “homosexual marriage” and therefore didn’t prosecute assaults between gay couples as domestic assaults, according to Tennesseean.

Let’s be clear here: there are some people who believe that homosexuality is unnatural, and snarky — at best — comments about homosexuality and known or suspected homosexuals in high school are common. Heck, such comments are common enough among adults!

But those also fall under the freedom of speech. You don’t have to like what someone says, or like the person who says it, to recognize that Americans have rights under the First Amendment.

Yet the late Mr Smith’s family wants to sweep all of that away, and, like in Massachusetts, criminalize the speech of normal high school students. Given that part of Miss Carter’s legal problems stemmed from the fact that Mr Roy had been treated by mental health care professionals and both he and Miss Carter had been prescribed psychiatric medications, in the Tennessee case the prosecution, if there is any, would not want to make the case that Mr Smith being homosexual or bisexual was a psychiatric condition. Unless he was under the care of a mental health professional — something that no news article I have seen has claimed — it would be a real stretch to claim that he had a psychiatric condition.


Should the ‘bullies’ have tormented Mr Smith? No, of course not! But this was high school, filled with teenagers, and teenagers behave as teenagers behave. There are plenty of kids who get teased and worse because they are overweight or wear glasses or are physical klutzes or have bad teeth or are simply unattractive . . . and some of them commit suicide, too. Are we going to criminalize everything that people say?

I shall be blunt here: if Mr Smith did not want his sexual orientation to become public — and he surely knew that he’d be mocked for it if it were public knowledge — he shouldn’t have sent sexually explicit texts to someone who would reveal them to others. Teenagers do stupid things, and just as in the all-too-common stories about teens who send nudes or other things to their boyfriends or girlfriends getting spread across the internet, technology has allowed the spread of stupidity to explode.

The people in Mr Smith’s school should not have mocked him for being homosexual or bisexual, but mocking him is not criminal, and it would be wrong for a prosecutor to try to criminalize their speech.
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