A judge in Minnesota has handed down a controversial verdict of guilty in the case of former nurse, William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, who encouraged people to commit suicide online. Civil libertarians and right-to-die advocates have criticized the prosecution as an assault on free speech. I share those concerns and believe that there is a strong basis for appeal in this case.
By any measure, Melchert-Dinkel’s conduct was shocking. He was charged with aiding in the suicides of an English man and Canadian woman. Mark Drybrough, 32, of Coventry, England, hanged himself in 2005, and 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji of Brampton, Ontario, jumped into a frozen river in 2008.
Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville ruled that Melchert-Dinkel was not merely advocating the right to die but engaging in what he called “lethal advocacy.” That is a new and undefined term. It is hard to see the distinction with hundreds of sites that advocate the right to die and often supply information on how to commit suicide. Neuville simply took narrow prior exceptions to protected speech and wildly extended them to include forms of advocacy: “The court finds that defendant’s speech imminently incited the victims to commit suicide, and can be described as ‘lethal advocacy,’ which is analogous to the category of unprotected speech known as ‘fighting words” and ‘imminent incitement of lawlessness.”
This case has not received the attention that it warrants among civil libertarians. It presents an exceptionally important issue of free speech — making the appeal of the verdict equally important.