When do moral obligations also become legal obligations? This is a crucial question that free societies have to wrestle with.
The sentencing of Michelle Carter, a twenty-year old woman convicted of urging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to commit suicide in 2014 brings this question to the forefront yet again.
Carter, who was seventeen at the time, sent hundreds of text messages to her boyfriend, encouraging him to commit suicide. Finally, when she knew he was taking actions to do just that, she chose not to inform his family or the authorities. In fact, she urged him to get back into his truck, so that he could succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Just reading small excerpts of the court proceedings, as well as considering the deep hurt of Roy’s family, is enough to make one see red when they consider Michelle Carter’s hateful, sadistic behavior.
Some will say she deserved an even harsher sentence than the two and a half years she was given (fifteen months of which she will still need to serve). The prosecuting assistant district attorney, Maryclare Flynn, pushed for a seven to twelve year sentence, stating, “She ended (Roy’s) life to better her own.”
The court was determined to set a precedent with Carter’s sentencing, in hopes of discouraging others from behaving in such hateful ways.
There is no question that Carter’s behavior was despicable and the court of public opinion ought to unapologetically vilify her.
However, there is an important conversation that we have missed. Is free speech only permissible when it is kind, helpful, or otherwise pleasant? Or, are people legally allowed to be jerks, say hateful things, and verbally hurt others?
How do we determine an act of murder has occurred when the criminal actions taken aren’t, in fact, concrete, tangible actions at all? Is the power of persuasion, no matter how heinously it is used, grounds for murder or manslaughter convictions?
No one should excuse the hateful, wicked ways in which Carter treated her then-boyfriend, Conrad. Society ought to speak out against such behavior and estrange such perpetrators.
Yet, the emphasis should be on societal alienation, rather than legal retribution for one’s choice to use malicious and ill-intended words. Conrad Roy was clearly battling enormous mental health issues. Michelle Carter preyed upon his already fragile emotions. She did not, however, force him to take his life. That heartbreaking choice rested upon his shoulders.
Once we start down the road of policing speech, outside the realm of libel, slander, or threats, we are treading into highly subjective waters that could one day come back to bite us. And that is the conversation we should be having when considering this tragic case.