We are open during COVID-19 and available to speak about your case by video conference, over the phone or in person.

First Amendment Free Speech in the cases of Inyoung You and Michelle Carter: How will the United States Supreme Court define the boundaries of the First Amendment

What is Involuntary Manslaughter in Massachusetts?  

Involuntary manslaughter is an unlawful killing base on wanton and reckless conduct.  In both, the Carter and Inyoung You cases, a major issue is whether the defendant had fair notice under the due process clause that there conduct was criminal.

The case of In Young You involved her sending an extraordinary under of text to her boyfriend, 47,000 and a hundred of them told him to kill himself and go die.  90 Minutes before his graduation the 22 year old biology major jumped from the garage killing himself.  

First Amendment issues before the Court

The Young case will raise the same first amendment issues brought in Michelle Carter. In Michelle Carter case is currently being considered by the United States Supreme Court for writ of certiorari brought by Carter.  I would expect the Court to grant certiorari as the case raises significant First Amendment issues that the court needs to address.  

The key precedent that the United States Supreme Court needs to clarify is its decision in Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U.S. 490 (1949), which held that speech can be punished when it is integral to criminal conduct.  The Giboney case is a very different case from Young and Carter because it was a union dispute whether there was conduct apart from the speech that was being categorized as criminal.  

Carter in her brief will rely heavily on decisions from two other State Courts that support her argument that her conduct was protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment,.  

In State v. Melchert-Dinkel, 844 N. W. 2d 13 (Minn. 2014), the Minnesota Supreme Court vacated a defendant’s conviction who encouraged the victim to commit suicide but never did anything to aid or assist the person in committing suicide.  The Minnesota Supreme Court found that passive actions of words alone could not be considered criminal and that there is no law precluding suicide.  Accordingly, the aiding is not to conduct that is illegal.  Massachusetts likewise has no law making suicide a crime.  

In Carter’s brief, she argues that her conduct was purely speech; she never started the car, put the victim in the garage or was even present at the scene.  

Other States Courts have also addressed similar First Amendment issues in interpreting their State Stalking Statutes.  In People v. Relerford, 104 N. E. 3d 341 (Ill.2017), the Illinois statute made it illegal to engage in a course of conduct to put another person in fear.  The Illinois Supreme Court struck down this law finding that the Court was criminalizing pure speech.  

Like the Illinois Supreme Court, the North Carolina Court of Appeals addressed this issue of speech versus criminal conduct in interpreting a stalking statute.  The defendant in that case, made comments on social media claiming that the victim was his wife and other statements that were not true.  The defendant made unusual references to the victim.  The North Carolina Court of Appeals Vacated the conviction because it was based purely on words alone.  

The defendant argue in their brief that essentially the SJC was imposing a content restriction on Carter’s speech.  The United States Supreme Court has traditionally rejected content based restrictions on speech that would create an balancing test regarding the relative value of speech.  The State is likely to argue in its reply brief that Carter’s speech was not political, but aimed to encourage a young individual to take his life after he had second thoughts about doing so.  The key distinction for First Amendment purposes may be that she told Roy to get back in the truck when it appeared he may have had second thoughts about suicide.  While this will make the issue closer, I would still expect the Court to find that the criminal violation was still based on speech, which Roy was free to ignore.  Carter is being prosecuted for her words alone which is contrary to the First Amendment.  

Will Carter’s Words get back in the truck be considered speech or criminal conduct?

The vulnerability of Roy makes the case interesting on appeal.  Carter by the nature of her text could be seen as having a special relationship to Roy such that she cannot encourage him to commit harm.  A parent who tells their child to do something that results in the child’s death would certainty be punished for involuntary manslaughter despite the actions being words alone.  It will be hard for the Court to draw a line in this case.  I think Carter’s better argument is attacking the Massachusetts common law of involuntary manslaughter as unconstitutionally vague.  I think the facts show that her actions can be viewed as more than mere words because of the encouragement to get back in the truck.  

Is the common law of involuntary manslaughter unconstitutionally vague?

Carter is also challenging that the Massachusetts involuntary manslaughter common law is unconstitutionally vague as applied to assisted suicide.  The defense argues that the prosecution could prosecute any attempts to end life.  The fact that the SJC indicates that prosecution in life ending situation for the terminally ill would not happened, the defense argues that prosecutor discretion cannot save a life from a constitutional challenge based on vagueness.  There is no defined boundaries of how can be prosecuted and who cannot for encouraging suicide.  

Criminal laws are suppose to provide clear notice of what conduct is criminal to satisfy the due process clause of the 14th amendment.  With regard to applying the common law of involuntary manslaughter to assisted suicide, it is impossible to draw a line as to what conduct is criminal and what is not.  The defense argued that the SJC has not established reasonable guidelines for law enforcement.  In this case, what separates Carter’s actions as being pure speech from criminal conduct; according to the trial judge it was her order for him to get back in the truck, there was never any precedent as to where conduct because verbal and involuntary manslaughter before the Carter case.  The SJC cited decisions in its opinion about involuntary manslaughter charge arising out of a game of Russian roulette, but that analogy does not apply well to a teenage girl with mental problems of her own and in a context where all the communications are by text message. 

The defense powerfully argues that the need for clear guidelines is apparent when you are dealing with sensitive and emotional end of life issues.  It is hard to distinguish Carter’s actions from assisted suicide.  The SJC indicated that compassionate end of life decisions would not be prosecuted, but based on the conduct it could be.  

The Untied States Supreme Court, I expect will decide for Carter on the vagueness argument, and will likely address the free speech argument and find that her First Amendment rights were not violated.  I would expect the Court will want States to be able to regulate speech in this age of bullying but will require clear guidelines from the legislature.  

Looking at the case of Young, her prosecution is used on the same vague and overboard laws of involuntary manslaughter.  There was no statute making her conduct criminal so a win for Carter on the vagueness issue should apply to Young.  

To learn more about important issues in Massachusetts criminal law you can follow Attorney DelSignore on Twitter. 

Contact Information