Free Speech

Free Speech: Words as Weapons

Limits on Free Speech in a Free Society

Whether it is a video on YouTube, a post on Facebook, Instagram, or Snap Chat, a text on your mobile phone or a Tweet, the internet age is one that has almost limitless opportunities to express yourself.  Free speech is the cornerstone of the wonderful land we live in and separates us from many countries in the world where First Amendment rights don’t exist.

Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter

This free-flowing exchange of information is not, however, without boundaries.  This is illustrated in two recent cases.   The first, Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, has recently been widely reported on after Ms. Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter by urging her “friend” Conrad Roy to get into his truck which she had reason to believe was filled with carbon monoxide.  The trial judge in the case found that Carter’s text to Roy set in motion a life-threatening chain of events that ultimately led to Roy’s death by suicide.  Although Carter believed it would take about 15 minutes for Roy to be overcome by the toxic fumes, she did nothing to stop the waterfall of events she set in motion with her text.  She did not text or call Roy to tell him to get out of the truck, she did not call the police, nor did she call Roy’s parents or friends to his aid.

Not All Forms of Speech Are Protected

Carter’s words, telling Roy to get back in the truck, combined with her failure to come to his aid directly or indirectly, led the Court to conclude she engaged in wanton and reckless conduct which directly caused Roy’s death at that place and time.  The fact that Roy had been suicidal several times previously, or may have ultimately succeeded in taking his own life at a different time in the future, was found to be irrelevant by the judge.  While this decision is on appeal and the ultimate determination is unknown, it illustrates that not all forms of speech are protected, and words, in certain circumstances, can be just as dangerous as a knife or a gun.

Although there are few exceptions to our ability to express ourselves, they do exist.  Another of these exceptions is what is known as a “true threat”.  Recently, in the case of Commonwealth v. Cristino, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts explained the difference between a “true threat” and constitutionally protected free speech.  In that case, Mr. Cristino was charged with stalking the town police chief and his deputy.  The primary evidence against Cristino was a series of videos he posted on his personal Facebook page accusing the two officials of corruption, drinking at local bars and associating with known criminals.

Ultimately, the Appeals Court reversed Cristino’s stalking conviction on the basis that it was protected free speech.  The Court explained that Cristino’s statements were not “true threats” as they were not direct threats of immediate physical harm nor did the circumstances of the videos and other statements indicate that he intended to cause immediate harm to the victims.  Moreover, Cristino was engaged in political expression which is provided the widest protection under the law.

Free Speech Right Has Limits

The following cases demonstrate that while free speech is a fundamental right in this country, expression does have its limits.

If what you say is meant to harass or annoy someone to the point of causing them emotional harm, fear of bodily injury or death, or incite them to an act which causes them harm, such speech is not protected and could result in criminal charges and/or a civil lawsuit seeking money damages.

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