Federal suit alleges Minnesota law violates free speech

Final Exit Network, a nonprofit that advocates for the right to voluntary euthanasia, is suing Anoka County officials in federal court after sheriff’s deputies interrupted a meeting between two “Exit Guides” and an Anoka County woman May 4.

The organization says the First Amendment rights of the Exit Guides were violated and that the Minnesota statute that criminalizes speech that “enables” death by suicide is unconstitutional.

Final Exit and the two guides, Ted Ballou and Kevin Bradley, filed the civil lawsuit May 17 against Sheriff James Stuart and County Attorney Tony Palumbo. The plaintiffs are asking Magistrate Judge Katherine M. Menendez to issue a temporary injunction to prohibit prosecution of the plaintiffs and ultimately to declare the Minnesota statute unconstitutional to the extent that it criminalizes enabling speech in the absence of any physical assistance for death by suicide.

According to the lawsuit, sheriff’s deputies came to the residence of an Anoka County woman minutes after Ballou and Bradley arrived. The two had “exchanged pleasantries” with the people at the home but “had not said a word about the purpose of the visit,” according to the lawsuit.

The deputies reportedly said they had received a tip that an “assisted suicide” was to take place, and they forcibly seized Ballou’s backpack and Bradley’s travel bag. Deputies have since refused to return the bags and confirmed they obtained search warrants to search the bags and computers in them, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs say the deputies’ actions indicate that Ballou and Bradley are under threat of imminent prosecution, but “under the circumstances, the only possible contemplated crime would have to be ‘attempting to assist in a suicide’ and could have been based only on pure speech.”

In short, the plaintiffs believe Ballou and Bradley are threatened with prosecution for exercising their right to freedom of speech.

Final Exit Network is a Florida-based nonprofit with a mission “to educate qualified individuals in practical, peaceful ways to end their lives, offer a compassionate bedside presence and defend their right to choose.”

The organization’s free, volunteer-based Exit Guide program — in which Ballou and Bradley are involved — provides “information, education, and emotional support to people who are considering whether to make an informed and rational choice to terminate irremediable suffering,” according to the lawsuit. The organization says it screens program applicants to ensure their suffering can’t be relieved and that their decisions are “competent, voluntary, and well considered.” It also says Exit Guides do not encourage participants to hasten their deaths and “scrupulously avoid providing any physical assistance.”

The lawsuit doesn’t challenge the state’s law making it a crime to assist another in death by suicide when the law is applied to physical assistance or providing the means. But the Minnesota Supreme Court has interpreted the law to criminalize not only conduct but “speech” that “enables” death by suicide.

“Minnesota has become the only State in the Union to clearly and explicitly make the routine activities of the Exit Guides — all core First Amendment-protected speech — a crime,” the lawsuit says.

Sheriff Stuart said in an email that he can’t discuss details of the case due to the pending litigation but “the entire situation saddens me.”

“I feel for anyone who is caught up in such a feeling of despair that they would feel compelled to reach out to an entity like this,” he wrote. “I also think it is sad that someone would seek to profit from the despair of another.”

County Attorney Palumbo declined to comment on matters in litigation.

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