Lawmakers are seeking to make online assistance in suicide a federal crime, pushing to hold accountable both individual users and the tech companies and websites that allow such content on their platforms.
A bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Monday, the Stop Online Suicide Assistance Forums Act, comes amid growing concern about youth suicide rates and mounting evidence of online dangers.
The bill’s main sponsor cited a Times investigation published last December on a website where members share step-by-step instructions on how to die and encourage each other to go through with their suicide plans. The inquest identified 45 deaths linked to the site and found hundreds of posts suggesting the true toll was much higher.
“As a mom,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, Democrat of Massachusetts, the results were “terrifying and it motivated us to take action.” Co-sponsors of the bill with her were Katie Porter, Democrat of California, and Republicans Mike Carey of Ohio and Chris Stewart of Utah.
Even though the trail of suicides linked to the site grows – the Times has since identified dozens more deaths, including several young teenagers – no one involved has faced legal consequences.
While most states have laws against assisted suicide, they are inconsistent and rarely enforced, and do not explicitly address online activity. It is unclear to what extent suicide speech is protected by the First Amendment.
The new federal bill builds on a Minnesota state Supreme Court ruling that said giving suicide instructions in an online exchange was a crime.
Previous legislation aimed at addressing this issue, the Suzanne Gonzales Suicide Prevention Act, first proposed in 2007 and named for a 19-year-old who committed suicide after receiving instructions over the internet, would have also makes online assisted suicide a federal crime. It was featured several times but never received a vote.
The new bill would authorize suits under an existing exception to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that governs online activity and generally shields website operators from liability for posted content. by users. Exempt from protection are operators of websites that host content that violates federal criminal law.
While Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other platforms have in recent years banned users from sharing suicide methods and encouraging self-harm, they haven’t eliminated it entirely. Under the new bill, they could face up to five years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
The bill does not criminalize the act of suicide or incitement to commit suicide. Nor does it interfere with state laws that explicitly allow medical assistance in dying for terminally ill people.
Suicide awareness and prevention organizations and families of young people who died in connection with the suicide website have called for such legislation.
“At least it’s an important step. We need to remove this online help,” said Sharon Luft, whose 17-year-old son Matthew killed himself last year less than a month after joining the site.
When Matthew inquired about a specific method, another member was quick to respond with a link to detailed instructions on how to use it to die. Later, he sought and received more detailed advice to ensure his efforts would work. At one point he wondered if the method was working and asked if he should continue. Another member replied, “If you want the attempt to be a success, then yes.”
“Websites that promote suicide and offer instructions are harmful, especially to youth and young adults,” said Robert Gebbia, executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Diego Joaquín Galante and Lamarcus Small, revealed by The Times as the two men who created the suicide website and operated it for years, cast it as a ‘pro-choice’ forum supporting member decisions to live or die, and presented themselves as defenders of freedom of expression. In online postings under the Marquis name, Mr. Small has repeatedly said the site complies with US law.
After the Times investigation, the pair announced that they had handed the site over to new administrators who shared similar beliefs. In September, according to analytics firm Similarweb, the site attracted nearly 10 million views.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
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