Is Encouraging Suicide Online Free Speech, or Murder?

chat-roomUsing Internet chat rooms as his venue, a nurse in Minneapolis is accused of encouraging depressed people to commit suicide and then advising them on the best way to do it. 

Investigators say that William Melchert-Dinkel, 47, feigned compassion for those he chatted with, while offering step-by-step instructions on how to kill themselves, according to a story in the New York Times.  Melchert-Dinkel is under investigation for at least two deaths.  He has been stripped of his nursing license but so far hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Prosecutors in the case face an interesting First Amendment challenge.  Since he didn’t physically help kill anyone, Melchert-Dinkel doesn’t fall in the category christened by Jack  Kevorkian  in 1999 when he was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison for second degree murder (he served 8 years of the sentence).  But, the nurse did allegedly encourage people already on the psycho-emotional edge to take their last step, and furnished them with the means to make it final.  Is this protected speech? 

Though our sense of justice may want to stamp this guy guilty as charged, the legal prognosis isn’t so direct.  All but 3 states in the U.S. have laws against assisted suicide (Oregon, Montana and Washington are the holdouts)–but the gulf between “encouragement” and “assistance” is potentially a big one.  The Kevorkian precedent was based on physically assisting suicide, not verbally supporting would-be suicides.  To charge Melchert-Dinkel with murder, prosecutors will have to bridge this gulf, and it won’t be easy.

What might be the clincher is the accused’s profession. As a medical professional, it would seem that he bears a higher level of responsibility than the average bear. According to the Times article, the Minnesota Board of Nursing said he encouraged numerous people to commit suicide and told at least one person that “his job as a nurse made him an expert on the most effective way to do it.”  If that’s true, then he was essentially providing the same services as Kevorkian without the hands-on approach. 

Cases like this are pushing into new legal territory–the long-standing division between speech and action is being tested by media technology that makes psychological manipulation by strangers commonplace.  Brings to mind a case last year in which a federal grand jury indicted a Missouri woman for mind screwing a 13-year-old girl into killing herself on MySpace.  Clearly, in the age of social media physical proximity is not a prerequisite for committing a crime.

Years from now we’ll probably look back on these cases as the turning point when our legal system was forced to reckon with new realities.  In the world that the Internet built, the bad guys don’t always leave fingerprints.

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One thought on “Is Encouraging Suicide Online Free Speech, or Murder?

  1. Pingback: Free Speech Round-Up «

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