Pro-suicide speech protected by the First Amendment under Minnesota law

The internet can be a resource for finding comfort, but also a trap for the unwary and the desperate. The Minnesota Supreme Court recently threw out part of the aiding suicide law as unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment in a case involving internet correspondence which lead to two deaths.

In State v. Melchert-Dinkel, a person posed in an internet suicide chat room as a depressed and suicidal nurse, but feigned a compassionate and caring demeanor to gain the trust of other people on the website. In conversations with a person in England and one in Canada, the defendant encouraged each to hang themselves, and tried to persuade them to let him watch over a webcam. The two eventually did commit suicide, one by hanging and one by jumping into a river.

A lie is still protected free speech

Minnesota law enforcement officials, responding to a report about an "internet predator" who was encouraging people to commit suicide, tracked the defendant down by his computer address. He was charged with two counts of aiding suicide under Minnesota law.

After being convicted on both counts, the defendant argued on appeal that the law violated his free speech rights. The state argued that exceptions to the First Amendment applied, such as speech as part of criminal conduct and speech involving fraud. In Minnesota the law against suicide was repealed in 1911, so there was no criminal conduct involved. Since it is not against the law to lie, despite the defendant's bad intentions his lies were protected speech.

Law prohibiting advising or encouraging suicide found too broad

Despite its unsavory nature, the expression of a pro-suicide point of view is speech on a matter of public concern, and is highly protected by the First Amendment. The law against assisting suicide requires a direct causal connection between the speech and enabling the person to commit suicide. The portions prohibiting advising and encouraging suicide were found unconstitutionally overbroad.

The defendant in Melchert-Dinkel may have encouraged and advised the victims to commit suicide, and directed his urging to specific individuals, but that without more was not the same as assisting a suicide. He did not take any concrete actions to enable the suicides, and the court said that only direct causal links between the speech and the suicide would violate the law.

Assisting is separate and distinct from advising and encouraging

The court struck the words "advise" and "encourage" from the Minnesota Assisting Suicide law, leaving the stricter requirements for proving "assisting" intact. Since the defendant was found guilty under the portions of the law that was taken out, his case was sent back to the trial court to decide whether his actions were enough to convict him under the remaining part of the statute.

The defendant here was tried and convicted for using words that later were found to be entirely legal. It is not often that a law is found unconstitutional, but if you or a loved one is involved in a prosecution where there is a question about a law, an accomplished attorney can pinpoint constitutional issues and make sure your rights are protected.