July 5, 2022

Is advising people to kill themselves a case of free speech?

Egging people on to commit suicide can be regarded as free speech which is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled.

Former nurse William Melchert-Dinkel 

Egging people on to commit suicide can be regarded as free speech which is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled. It has sent the case of former nurse William Melchert-Dinkel back to a district court judge to determine whether he should be tried for assisting suicide rather than just encouraging it.

The facts of the bizarre case are clear enough. In 2011 Melchert-Dinkel, a married father of two, was arrested after the suicides of 32-year-old Mark Drybrough in England, and 18-year-old Nadia Kajouji in Ontario. He had posed as a young suicidal female nurse in suicide chatrooms, given his victims detailed instructions, and encouraged them to enter suicide pacts with him. They were supposed to hang themselves while he watched on webcam. Apparently he had encouraged dozens of people to kill themselves. He told police that he did it for “the thrill of the chase”. He was convicted of assisted suicide and sentenced to one year in jail, suspended pending appeal.

The final outcome of the case will also affect another prosecution in Minnesota. Four members of the Final Exit Network have been charged with encouraging a woman who suffered from chronic pain to commit suicide. That case may fail if all charges against Melchert-Dinkel are dropped.

The court’s decision is controversial. One state senator commented: “It really pushes back Minnesota’s tradition of protecting vulnerable people and people with medical conditions. The ruling allows a person to convince another to end it all by suicide, and that starts to make our society a little too harsh.”

However, bioethicist George Annas, of Boston University, agreed with the court’s decision.

“Well, he was a nasty person. I don’t think there is any redeeming social value of having someone on the Net looking for people who are suicidal and trying to encourage them to kill themselves by even explaining different methods… the Minnesota Supreme Court said, you know, we don’t like this guy, obviously, but his speech doesn’t come to the level of assisting. It does come to the level of advising and encouraging, but advice – you can advise and encourage. That’s protected speech.”

Michael Cook
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