Minnesota Appellate Court Rejects First Amendment Claim Of Former Nurse Who Encouraged Suicides

A Minnesota appellate court has rejected the free speech claims of former nurse William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, who encouraged people to commit suicide online. As with other civil libertarians, I have expressed concern over the implications of the case in convicting Melchert-Dinkel for sharing information on suicide and encouraging third parties to end their lives.

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.”

The case presents an important issue of free speech — making the appeal of the verdict equally important.The First Amendment does not protect the “morbid, predatory behavior” of a former nurse convicted of using the Internet to urge two people to kill themselves, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

Yet, the court unanimously upheld William Melchert-Dinkel’s conviction for assisting suicide, a felony under Minnesota law. The opinion by Judge Kevin Ross is sweeping in its language, insisting that the First Amendment “does not lift a finger to protect a charlatan who falsely advertises, or a slanderer who defames, or a perjurer who lies under oath.”

The court simply treats the state’s law against aiding and assisting suicide as any other law prohibiting aiding and abetting a crime. “We are convinced that speech that intentionally advises, encourages, or assists another to commit suicide is an integral part of the criminal conduct of physically assisting suicide.”

The opinion dismisses free speech concerns despite the obvious dangers to treating advocacy for suicide as a crime. Recently, a Dakota County grand jury indicted four members of Final Exit, a New Jersey-based right-to-die group, on 17 counts in connection with the death of Doreen Dunn, 57, who committed suicide in her home.

In the opinion below, the court rules that “[t]he statute does not implicate the First Amendment because, to the extent it prohibits speech, it prohibits speech that is integral to harmful, proscribable conduct.” This standard however could be used to criminalize a wide swath of conduct. Of course, there is also the fundamental controversy over whether a person has an inherent right to terminate their own life. This case is a couple steps removed in prosecuting someone who encourages the use of that alleged right.

What do you think?

Here is the opinion: opa110987-071712

Source: Star Tribune

11 thoughts on “Minnesota Appellate Court Rejects First Amendment Claim Of Former Nurse Who Encouraged Suicides”

  1. People can take sleeping pills or hang themselves whenever they want. They don’t need medical assistance.

  2. One suicide in England and one in Canada. Kind of out of jurisdiction for assisted suicide in Minnesota.

  3. He was born, in Minnesooota,
    His wife’s name was Betty Lou Thelma Liz…
    He’s not responsible for what he’s doin,
    His mother made him what he is.

    Its up against the wallllll, Redneck Mothers.
    Mothers who have raised a son so well,
    So Well!
    He’s 34 and sittin in Honky Tonks,
    kickin hippy’s asses and raisen hell.

    Yes this Judge is schooled well. Jerry Jeff Walker would be proud.

  4. Ghoulish – but protected free speech in my view.

    The court seems to have substituted its religious views for logic in its tortured opinion. Here’s the Judge when he was a Senator:

    “Life is a gift from God. It isn’t up to us to take it away. Whether you take an innocent life of a baby, or of a person who has committed a heinous act, it is still an act at our hands, and it makes us a less caring and less sensitive society.”

    Tom Neuville, leading Republican committee member on the Minnesota’s Senate Judiciary Committee, opposing Governor Pawlenty’s efforts to reinstate the death penalty (Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 7, 2003).

  5. Under this court’s misplaced logic, I wonder if advertising birth control pills or the morning after pill will also be considered unprotected speech? Will professors be prevented from discussing in class important, but controversial topics in Minnesota after this ruling? Who is going to decide just what is “harmful, proscribable conduct” and what is not harmful? Scary decision.

  6. From the article above: “….insisting that the First Amendment “does not lift a finger to protect a charlatan who falsely advertises, or a slanderer who defames, or a perjurer who lies under oath.”

    Was the use of a noose false advertising? Did the defendant defame dead guy? Did the defendant lie under oath? Is it perjury to show someone the edge of a cliff, the shape of a rope tied in a noose?

    There is not a crime here, but the defendant might put the Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amdt and Fourteenth Amendments front and center.
    He is going to go the the State Supreme Court next? Then cert petition?

  7. Dr Jack K, found out the hard way….. They will change the laws to get you…..

  8. “The court finds that defendant’s speech imminently incited”

    The sentence is jibberish.
    Talk about just making it up as you go along….They knew the next courts up the food chain would be looking for “imminent (aka clear and present) danger” so this court just throws the word “imminent” in there in an attempt to satisfy the law.

    imminently = about to occur
    incited = encouraged

    She was “about to encourage”?
    Is that some form of pre-crime?

  9. I am going to go out on a limb here and ask all judges of that court to never stop taking their medications when they are old and ill and going to die anyway. And when they approve of a verdict of death penalty and violate the Sixth Commandment then I will go out on a limb and say that they are going to probably have a rough time with Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. What part of Thou Shalt Not Kill Does Thou Not Get? No, the First Amendment does not trump the Sixth Commandment. So, who goes to Hell, the dead murderer killed by the State with the approval of the court, or the members of the court who ordered him by written word to die?

    We also need to prosecute publishers of medical texts which sort out which substances are poisons. We need to prosecute the people who put the sign up on the side of the road which warns of a cliff. Someone might jump off.

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