ATLANTA — Georgia's highest court concluded Monday that a state law restricting assisted suicides violated free speech rights.
The Georgia Supreme Court's unanimous ruling struck down the 1994 law, which bans people from publicly advertising suicide. It was adopted by lawmakers hoping to prevent right-to-die supporters from offering their services in the state.
The ruling means that four members of the Final Exit Network who were charged in February 2009 with helping a 58-year-old cancer patient die won't have to stand trial. The group, which was once based in Georgia, was at the center of a lengthy investigation by state authorities who infiltrated its operations.
Georgia law doesn't expressly forbid assisted suicide. But the law established felony charges for anyone who "publicly advertises, offers or holds himself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively assist another person in the commission of suicide and commits any overt act to further that purpose."
The court's opinion found that lawmakers could have imposed a ban on all assisted suicides with no restriction of free speech, or sought to prohibit all offers to assist in suicide that were followed by the act. But lawmakers decided to do neither, said the opinion, written by Justice Hugh Thompson.
"The state has failed to provide any explanation or evidence as to why a public advertisement or offer to assist in an otherwise legal activity is sufficiently problematic to justify an intrusion on protected speech rights," the ruling said.
The decision left open a route for state lawmakers to explicitly outlaw all assisted suicides, as long as the law doesn't infringe on free speech rights.