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One of the American values that we hold dear is the freedom of speech, as well as expression of that freedom. There are many who valiantly spend a lifetime pursuing passions that they hold dear. In some cases, experiencing this freedom is defined as “activism.” According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of activism is “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”


This past week, in what appeared to be an act of such a passion, a man self-immolated himself on the Washington D.C. National Mall. This happened only a day after a woman was shot by a Washington D.C. police officer during a police chase. Both cases are still under investigation. The self-immolation story is of particular interest for many asking the question, “Why?” Since the act of self-immolation seems contrary to a strong will to live and self-preservation, many people are questioning the motivation for such an act, and if activism is the motivation, they are wondering what the issue is that was being supported or demonstrated. Self-immolation, according to Wikipedia, is “setting oneself on fire, often as a form of protest.” Wikipedia goes on to explain the history of the act, and its connection with sacrifice and martyrdom, and its significance in history and as a religious practice.

Certainly, the act of setting another person on fire would be considered a crime so it would seem to many that performing that type of criminal act against oneself would also be a crime. When self-immolation ends in death, it becomes a suicide. The United States, in particular, has had some controversy on the issue of the legality of suicide, since there is a question whether it infringes on a person’s right to how their life ends.

According to Wikipedia, there has been a “decriminalization of individual suicides…in Western societies.” This is another example of how an experienced attorney can be helpful in understanding the law of the state where a person resides.

In some cultures, notably the Tibetan culture, there is some level of honor related to this act of self-immolation, by those who practice it and support it. However, not all of the members of the culture agree. According to International Campaign for Tibet, self-immolation is not something that they want the outside world to know about and there are consequences for those who practice it. 18755180_l In the United States, freedoms are important to us. These freedoms are a part of what defines us as Americans. However, in cases where self-expression may cross the lines of legality, it is best to define those parameters before engaging in an act that may have negative consequences on you, as the individual, your community, or your cause. An act of self-immolation, for example, may have some unforeseen consequences such as trespassing or property damage. By consulting with a criminal defense attorney, a person can determine which actions will have the desired result, which actions are legal, and which would be counter-productive to the controversy or political issue being supported in the activism action.

About The Author

Attorney Mike Schlosser represents victims of personal injury, those charged with a crime, as well as those facing traffic charges. A former Guilford County, North Carolina District Attorney, Schlosser has been in private practice at the Law Firm of Schlosser & Pritchett since 1983 and has been a member of the North Carolina State Bar since 1973.

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