It seems I'll be on Channel 10's 6pm news broadcast explaining why tragedies like this one — Pembroke Pines teen broadcasts suicide on webcam — don't mean that we need a special set of cops and regulators for the Internet. (Earlier Channel 10 story, saying up to 1500 people were watching his broadcast; eventually someone called the Pembroke Pines cops, but they broke in too late to save Abraham Biggs Jr.)
The facts are grisly:
A Pembroke Pines teenager told an Internet audience he wanted to kill himself by drug overdose — and then he followed through on his macabre threat while a live webcam captured it, according to the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office.
Abraham Biggs Jr., 19, ingested a lethal mixture of three different drugs early Wednesday, then continued to blog about it while others watched online and egged him on.
The end of the video — which shows Pembroke Pines police busting into his bedroom and discovering his body — remained up on LiveVideo.com as of Friday morning.
Yes, I blame the people involved, not “the Internet”.
Florida has displaced the common-law rule against suicide with some statutory provisions. The most relevant one is aimed at assisted suicide (there's also § 782.081, banning premeditated commercial exploitation of a suicide, but that seems to me not to apply to these facts). Here's the relevant law:
782.08 Assisting self-murder.—Every person deliberately assisting another in the commission of self-murder shall be guilty of manslaughter, a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
The obvious legal questions, were a prosecutor to attempt the probably unwise project of indicting one or more of the 'egging on' crowd, are
- Does 'egging on' amount to 'deliberately assisting'?
- If the statute does make 'egging on' manslaughter, does the First Amendment prevent its operation because it protects this sort of speech?
My gut instinct — and I'll quickly admit this is not my field at all — is that 'egging on' does not amount to 'deliberately assisting' under this statute, which was pretty clearly aimed at physician assisted suicide, and cases where someone gives a depressed person guns or pills. I see the law as criminalizing the provision of tools in the main. Perhaps this could be extended to specialized knowledge, such as telling a depressed person how to make or find a gap in a protective fence at 'Suicide Gulch'. But I don't see it as extending to encouragement — even if a psychiatrist might testify (let us imagine) that the encouragement was a necessary element of the victim's decision.
Good thing, too, because the second question is much harder…