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