The First Amendment gives people living in Minnesota the right of free speech but does not clarify what this right entails. It simply states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” and this broad statement has been the subject of many court cases over the years, including one recently heard by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Challenging the law
In 2011, a man was found guilty of encouraging at least two people to commit suicide. Prosecutors said that the man, who worked previously as a nurse, looked for people in online chat rooms who were suicidal. He then made suicide pacts with 10 of these people and told them how to kill themselves, using a step-by-step guide. Authorities also showed through evidence that the man pretended to be concerned about these people and in his online presence, posed as a female nurse who was contemplating suicide.
In his appeal, the man argued that he was within his constitutional rights under the First Amendment and challenged Minnesota law, stating that it violated those rights. The law states that it is illegal for people to help others commit suicide, encourage others to commit suicide, or provide advice deliberately on suicide. An appeals court disagreed and upheld the man’s conviction.
After hearing arguments from both sides, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that the state law did violate the First Amendment, when it came to encouraging someone to commit suicide, and reversed the man’s conviction. The court pointed out that the language in the law did not specify what type of advice or what kind of encouragement and this lack of clarification interfered with a person’s right to express what they think or believe.
However, the court did not dismiss the man’s case either. In its ruling, the court pointed out that speech could be considered under the ‘assisting’ portion of the law, which was not covered by the First Amendment. The court sent the case back to the original judge so that the judge can make a decision on whether the man is guilty of assisting suicide in the case of these two people through his words; the judge did not make a ruling on that aspect of the case previously.
Supreme Court next stop?
After the ruling was announced, the Star Tribune reported the possibility that the case could be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling may also have an impact on the ruling in another state where a group is on trial for the suicide of a woman. That group is also accused of encouraging a person to commit suicide.