Minnesota vs. William Melchert-Dinkel: empowering the monsters of internet suicide baiting
While many claim they hate the old dictum, “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater,” used to illustrate the practical limitations of freedom of speech, others have favored this shortcut ever since discovering it in our high school civics class. In fact, “yelling fire in a crowded theater” has been the gold standard against which First Amendment rights have been measured for over a hundred years.
The paraphrase, coming from a 1919 opinion written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., is so painstakingly precise, it is difficult to read. In truth, the six-paragraph indictment was penned by a great man who happened to be dead wrong in the particular instance for which he wrote it (Schenck v. United States, 1919).
While many apocryphal stories exist to trace Holmes’ inspiration for the “yelling fire” metaphor, the most compelling one is based on a 1913 Michigan Christmas Eve massacre of striking miners and their families, many who were trampled to death while celebrating Christmas in a public hall. A mine “mole” had yelled, “FIRE!” when there was no fire. The ensuing stampede claimed 73 lives, mostly children.
This sad story probably had remained poignant in Holmes’ mind 6 years later when he wrote the most often quoted SCOTUS opinion: “The most stringent protection, would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing panic.”
Indeed. Holmes meant that a healthy, self-governing society demands that its citizens act with responsibility, respect, and moderation. Of course any man may shout “FIRE!” to his heart’s content inside an empty theater (if he owns the property, has permission, or perhaps, before he is caught) and of course any man may shriek “FIRE!” if that were indeed a true circumstance (or even if the man mistakenly thought it were true) but next comes the tricky part.
“The question in every case,” Holmes had patiently written, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.” This language would not be protected. These words would come to be categorized as “fighting words” and “lethal advocacy.”
While American First Amendment jurisprudence is as extensive as it is passionate, most of us long ago accepted that in a democracy, no absolute right to free speech could ever possibly exist. Especially if a man creates a clear and present danger for others in order to personally gain something for himself — including pleasure. In a just society, this necessitates consequences. A man may not jeopardize someone’s life for his personal gratification.
Yet a man in Minnesota – who should have gone to jail over three years ago for what he did – is being held up as some sort of heroic free speech champion. Posing as a female nurse, undisputed suicide predator prince William Francis Melchert-Dinkel would scout out his prey on the Internet and string them along to the very abyss of death, hoping to watching them hang themselves, his favorite. And what he did was as illegal as hell at the time he did it!
Yet, his depraved actions were shockingly decriminalized on March 19, 2014, a date I will never forget, the day before what would have been my son’s 37 birthday if he had lived. On that day the Minnesota Supreme Court declared that two parts of its state Penal Code 609.215 were unconstitutional.
Like many other states, Minnesota’s old statute had been deeply rooted in English common law, which the state first adopted at statehood in 1817, writing its own penal code less than a decade later. The statute from 1877 had prohibited anyone from “encouraging, advising, or assisting” in another’s suicide. It was a law that had been on the books in one form or another for almost 200 years, surviving the decriminalization of the act of suicide, itself, in 1911 in that state (Minnesota vs. William Melchert-Dinekel, p 18).
Many consider the Minnesota Supreme Court decision the most odious and shocking in all of American First Amendment history. The high court overturned two lower court decisions in 2011 and 2012 that had found the serial suicide killer Melchert-Dinkel guilty for his culpability – “encouraging and advising” – in the suicide deaths of a young Canadian woman and a despondent man from England.
Now only “assisting” in someone’s suicide is a crime in Minnesota. Never mind that a licensed physician – one familiar with the end-of-life issues of suffering – cannot “assist” in a suicide. According to this ruling, any sociopathic maniac can urge someone to die for entertainment! We are not talking about the exchange of intellectual ideas regarding suicide, but the trolling of a suicide ghoul interested in making a snuff film. Melchert-Dinkel was not going to be jailed for having a favorable opinion about suicide but for his intention to cause a suicide.
The court’s decision prompted some of the most outstanding examples of understatement I have ever read. From Minnesota Senator Warren Limmer: “It really pushes back Minnesota’s tradition of protecting vulnerable 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.”
Indeed. The abject horror that is coming in Minnesota will be on a scale that most could never imagine.
How do I know? My son Dylan Yount died in a public suicide baiting, the malicious encouragement of suicide; this socio-psychological phenomenon is rare but does exist (Google Suicide Baiting Prevention). Taunters on the ground often mock and torture a victim poised at a great height to jump to his death so they can enjoy it. Dylan died by jumping off the Forever 21 building six stories to his death – humiliated, confused and unprotected – in Hallidie Plaza, San Francisco, California, on Mardi Gras Tuesday, 2010.
In California, the statute that should have protected him is Penal Code 401. It says that anyone who deliberately encourages, advises, or assists another person in suicide is guilty of a felony. Yet no San Francisco police officer out of the 24 “attendees” intervened to stop Dylan’s death by arresting any in the crowd of 1,000 that urged him to die. They watched. Dylan stopped short of jumping twice. He had to be convinced.
My son’s brutal death was an evil exploitation of a man with a disordered mind. My case, Kathy Yount, Individually And In Her Capacity As v. City and County of San Francisco Et Al, will try to make sure this horror never happens to anyone else again.
Will suicide death as entertainment become a regular activity in America? It could. When a vacuum in the law exists, evil will step inside the space.
That vacuum now exists in Minnesota. I cannot imagine being a police officer there, trying to save a potential jumper’s life while trying to stop some idiot yelling “JUMP!” at the same time. After all, inciting suicide is the taunter’s constitutional right – he can tell you!
I find the attitude of Melchert-Dinkel’s suicide-entrepreneur-lawyer Terry A. Watkins equally horrifying. Watkins casually admits he did not spend too much time thinking about whether the verdict would have implications extending beyond his client’s (Google Suicide-encouraging nurse Melchert-Dinkel is ‘very decent human being,’ lawyer says)
Watkins puts it this way: “It might have ramifications in terms of the concept of suicide and maybe tangentially touch on internet speech, but for us it was always simply a matter of having my client acquitted.”
The verdict does a lot more than just slightly touch on Internet speech. It empowers monsters, gives license to perverted deviants hunched licentiously over their glowing laptop screens, fondling their ready webcams, hoping to make snuff videos to enjoy again and again to gratify themselves and share with others. There is money to be made in this new death porn industry. Evil is an opportunist. Always.
While many valiantly fought this decision, including the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, as well as the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, others like myself just worry that our great nation is losing its compassion and decency. And common sense.
We worry that we are becoming a state-by-state oligarchy that allows only FOUR people to decide on a state law that will harm some of our most vulnerable citizens (state supreme courts are usually 5 or 7). I long for SCOTUS to weigh in – the sooner the better!
Until then, I do not know how to stop the madness except to keep retelling my personal story, which will come into the national consciousness soon, beginning with our trial start date of August 25, 2014. After this Minnesota travesty of injustice, I have steeled myself for whatever happens. Each day the meaning of Dylan’s death widens and expands.
Meantime, since March 2014 I have visited Terry A. Watkins website many times. Each time I click on “Legal Philosophy,” I hold my breath, waiting to see if anything new will be there. This morning it is exactly the same: a picture of Rodin’s “The Thinker” with only these words beneath, “Terry A. Watkins, Attorney at Law. Philosophy. . . .”
Let us pray to God this is not the last word on legal philosophy.