Did free speech kill a 29-year-old bride-to-be? If it did, should there be consequences?

A month before her wedding Samantha Wendell, 29, a surgical technician, and her fiancé, Austin Eskew, 29, a correctional sergeant, came down with COVID-19. Eskew’s case was mild, and he recovered at home. Wendell’s condition worsened and breathing became difficult. After a week, she went to the hospital. Doctors tried with limited success to stabilize her. On Aug. 16, five days before her wedding date, doctors put her on a ventilator. On Sep. 10, her family agreed with the doctors that her case was hopeless, and they took her off life support.

Initially, Wendell had rejected getting vaccinated because the Grand Rivers couple planned on having children. And when the CDC approved COVID-19 vaccines, some of Wendell’s co-workers said the shots caused infertility — an unfounded claim that has gained ground despite top reproductive health groups refuting it. Emotion clouded her thinking and she determined to avoid the vaccine. 

She did not remain an anti-vaxxer. As deaths mounted from the delta variant of the disease, she and her fiancé booked vaccinations for the end of July. But catching COVID derailed that plan.

Wendell’s story is a tragic tale made worse by its needlessness. This healthy young woman — she had no underlying conditions — did not have to die. But, as her cousin Maria Vibandor Hayes, 39, said, ‘misinformation killed her.” This raises the question, should there be restrictions placed on speech that causes harm?

The most famous expression advocating that philosophy is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ aphorism that,

People promoting free speech restrictions frequently trot this out as justification for their position. They should not. Holmes offered his famous rationale in U.S. v. Schenck. A case in which SCOTUS decided that Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, could be convicted under the Espionage Act (1917) for writing and distributing a pamphlet that expressed his opposition to the draft during World War I. This was despite the fact that the pamphlet did not call for violence or even civil disobedience.

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