Oprah, Suicide, Free Speech, and Torts
I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes tape and later watch “Oprah” on t.v. I do not know that I am huge fan of her show, but I certainly find some of the guests she has on the show interesting. Anyway, Oprah said something last week that baffled me, as a legal matter. My responsive e-mailed to her GC drew no reply, so I come humbly to the blogosphere to see what you all might offer.
On one of Oprah’s shows last week, she interviewed the parents and sister of a 19-ish year old Florida State college student – very bright, very creative – who killed herself. The young-woman fed her kittens and cleaned her apartment, and then went to a hotel, took some variation of cyanide, and died. Before she left this earth, she sent a timed-delayed e-mail to her parents, starting off with a sentence along the lines of “As you probably know by now, I have passed away….” (The e-mail explained that she had struggled with depression, and she basically found the struggle futile.) I believe she also sent an e-mail to a friend and to the police, so that they would know where to find her body.
Though the story is tragic in and of itself, an overwhelmingly sad aspect of the story is that this young woman found information on the internet that helped her execute her suicide plan and some might say encouraged her to or at least coached her regarding following through. Specifically, she had been frequenting a “pro-choice” suicide blog (or chat board or message board or some such – allow me to say “blog”). (The pro-choice phrase came from the show.) It seems that the young woman was able to glean technical information about how to kill herself or links to information on what, specifically, to do kill herself from that blog. Worse, I believe her parents or Oprah said that this young woman was posting regularly on the blog to update the blog readers and posters about her two-week countdown to killing herself. One person on the blog actually helped her craft her final e-mail to her parents. Dear God.
There are other equally horrifying aspects to the story, but my legal question arose when Oprah, sitting on stage with the devastated parents and sister of the decedent, said something roughly along the lines of “My legal counsel tells me I have to say this: ‘Your daughter CHOSE to kill herself. It was her choice.’” Although I might be wrong on the exact words used in Oprah’s statement, she said something crystal clear to emphasize that this young woman *CHOSE* to take her own life.
I generally watch Oprah with minimal attention, at best, so I usually hear and recall only small amounts of what is covered on the show. I am usually folding laundry or organizing files or something else while keeping half an ear on the t.v. Oprah’s comment to that grieving family, however, basically screamed out to me and stopped me in my tracks. I had two immediate thoughts:
(1) Oprah did not *have* to say that for liability reasons, did she? and
(2) No wonder lawyers have such a bad public image.
I wracked my brain to figure out why Oprah was counseled to make that statement. I am assuming there were worries along the slander or defamation lines, but, since we were dealing with a blog (as opposed to the cattle industry, with which Oprah has had problems, or some other “business”), I could not imagine a “tortious interference with business” claim. Moreover, wasn’t everything Oprah said on the show loosely protected by either being (1) true or (2) Oprah’s personal opinion (uttered with no purpose to ruin a business relationship)? I am at a loss as to what significant liability concerns would mandate Oprah actually affirmatively emphasizing, when face to face with the grieving family, the point about choice (as opposed to just keeping quiet on that point and not intimating that the blog forced the young woman to kill herself). Obviously it might have made sense to tell Oprah to keep her comments away from anything sounding like she wanted to ruin a business (if we can call the blog a business). But telling her to affirmatively bring up and firmly *state* something on the “choice” issue, while sitting with the parents and sister of the decedent? That baffles me, and I cannot say that I felt a surge of warm and fuzzy feelings toward lawyers after hearing that comment.
What am I missing?
(Also, were fellow bloggers who gave the young decedent encouragement (if any of them did) illegally assisting a suicide? Am I allowed to stand below a window ledge on which a potential jumper is perched and chant “you can do it, just jump head first”? After looking quickly at New York’s penal laws, it seems that I cannot “intentionally cause or aid another person to attempt suicide.” I have not researched the issue, but I imagine “aiding” would not include chanting below the ledge “you can do it,” providing a link to a website that details techniques for killing oneself, or e-mailing a friend to say “good luck – you can do it.” Yet, given some of the mental and emotional issues at play with some suicides, I have to believe that counseling and encouraging someone who is contemplating suicide is as much of assistance as is giving someone your old bottle of rat poison to consume. Mind you, I am not a mental health professional nor do I have anything other than my own two experiences with folks who have taken their own lives to support my point.)