About H.R. 1183
On March 17, 2011, Congressman Wally Herger of California’s 2nd District introduced a bill to the United States House of Representatives that would make it a crime to use the Internet to promote or encourage suicide. This bill, H.R. 1183, is the Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act of 2011.
The text of H.R. 1183, as written, is a narrow and specific law. It’s not a broad abridgment of the freedom of speech. It specifically makes it a crime to go on the Internet and tell someone who seems to be thinking of suicide, “You should go through with it. Here’s how to do it and where to get the materials.”
Right now, using the Internet to encourage a suicidal person to go through with the act is perfectly legal. It’s the freedom of speech, in all its double-edged glory.
But should it be?
The freedom of speech is one of our core values, a value so important that it was the first one called out by name in the Bill of Rights. But it’s not an absolute. The freedom is speech is one of our most carefully regulated liberties. Laws governing slander, libel, fraud, incitement to violence, perjury and truth in advertising all abridge our freedom of speech. Why? Because speech is powerful. Speech can easily become action. And sometimes the consequences of the actions that result from speech are so serious, so tragic, that the government must step in.
The freedom of speech is vital. It’s vital to a just society, and it’s vital to a healthy society, and perhaps most important of all, it’s a vital part of the society we all want to live in. None of us wants to spend every waking moment watching what we say out of fear of being rounded up by the police. Limits on the freedom of speech, when such limits are necessary at all, must be narrow and specific.
H.R. 1183 is both narrow and specific. It is limited in its scope and its extent. It doesn’t trample on the First Amendment, and it doesn’t supersede state laws.
What it does do is send a message that life is not something to be played with. Persuading someone to commit suicide is morally comparable to the act of murder itself; to cause the death of another person, whether by direct action or encouragement to self-harm, is a morally repugnant act. And for our government to criminalize it and seek justice from those who participate in it is both proper and, as we saw all too tragically on March 23, 2003, necessary.