Last month Rice County found itself in the middle of the national debate over free speech on the Internet when the New York Times published a story called “Online Talk, Suicides and a Thorny Court Case,” about a Faribault man who has been charged with two counts of assisting suicide.
The defendant, William F. Melchert-Dinkel, is a nurse, husband, and father of two teenage daughters. He is alleged to have haunted Internet chat rooms frequented by suicidal individuals and encouraged them to kill themselves. Specifically, he presented himself, cloaked in the anonymity of the Internet, as a suicidal female nurse named, variously, “Cami,” “Falcon Girl,” or “Li Dao.”
If the allegations against him are true, Melchert-Dinkel is a sick man, but not a criminal. Many, especially on the Internet, have used stronger words to characterize him, and it is undeniably clear that he had an unhealthy fascination with death. Descriptions by police of his conversations with many of his victims and potential victims paint a picture of a man who deeply desired to watch people die, frequently encouraging his victims to use a webcam to allow him to witness their deaths. He encouraged, in order to satisfy some incomprehensible urge, that which a healthy human intellect finds most worthy of discouragement, and sought to watch that which a healthy human soul finds most emotionally disturbing.
If the allegations against him are true, Melchert-Dinkel has caused immeasurable pain and suffering, but he is not a criminal. He used deceit and trickery to target the most vulnerable among us, and helped to tear families apart. He joined suicide pacts that he never intended to honor. He used his status as a nurse, a member of one of the most admirable of professions, to gain the trust of his victims, and he used his medical expertise to help them to their ends, teaching such skills as how to tie a noose that would ensure a quick death.
If the allegations against him are true, Melchert-Dinkel is not a criminal. This is not a comfortable fact for many of us. How can someone who has done so much evil be guilty of no crime? How can a truly just system of law allow such a man to walk free?
Melchert-Dinkel’s words, hateful though they may be, are constitutionally protected by the 1st Amendment. The people who took their lives after communicating with him may have done so because of the words they shared with him, or not. Ultimately, this is an unanswerable question. We can never know the effect of his words on people who are no longer with us.
And, as with any attempt to legally circumscribe the right to free speech, the question becomes one of where to draw the line. Do we arrest people who discuss suicide in a neutral way with suicidal individuals? What about people who speak publicly of the virtues of suicide in abstract? What about people who publish instructions on how to commit suicide? What about someone who extols the wonder and glory of the afterlife? Couldn’t they be guilty of “encouraging suicide”? What if they target their sermons towards the suicidal? The notion that ideas shared with certain people, whom the speaker is supposed to identify, through the impenetrable fog of the Internet, as suicidal, could be defined as criminal is deeply troubling and legally problematic.
As George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley points out, laws that criminalize shouting “Jump!” to a person standing on the edge of a bridge have not withstood Supreme Court challenges. It would be ludicrous to suggest that such speech is protected, while the same speech broadcast over the Internet, to a person who may or may not actually be contemplating suicide, is criminal.
Ultimately, our desire to punish Melchert-Dinkel comes not from any rational jurisprudence, but from our desire to take vengeance upon a man who offends our notions of human decency and empathy. But I would suggest that our passion could be more productively directed.
Minnesota, once the poster child of suicide prevention, has seen its suicide rate rise in the past decade, especially the past two years, up to 11 suicides per 100,000 people in 2008 (this rate is more than twice as high among Minnesota’s Native American communities). The most recent up-tick is a product of the recession (suicide rates often track unemployment rates), but even from 2000-2005, Minnesota’s suicide rate climbed a whopping 15.7 percent, compared the national rate increase of only 4.2 percent.
If we want to prevent suicide, let’s spend the money we would have otherwise spent on a lengthy court battle (that the State of Minnesota would likely lose) on mental healthcare for those who so badly need it. And if you suspect that anyone you know may be depressed or suicidal, follow the advice of the Minnesota Department of Health’s own guidelines: talk to them about it.