Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Hypnotism and the Law

Students of evidence already know that hypnotism has a long history in our legal system (for example, a 1902 Yale Law Journal article explored "Legal Aspects of Hypnotism"). Hypnotically-refreshed testimony, highly controversial on the subject of its admissibility and reliability, has received the majority of scholarly attention over the years.

But another, even older, twist on hypnotism and the law resurfaced this week – liability for harm to a hypnotist's subject. In an unusual case from Florida, a school board approved a $600,000 settlement agreement with the families of three high school students who died in 2011 after they were hypnotized by the school's former principal. During an investigation after the tragic suicide of the first student, the school discovered that then-Principal George Kenney had hypnotized as many as 75 students and staff members in the school, and also taught students self-hypnosis techniques as a method to improve concentration. (Another student also committed suicide, while the third was involved in a fatal car accident, allegedly after using the self-hypnosis technique.)

As the local newspaper reported, the former principal resigned a year after the students' deaths, and was charged with misdemeanors related to the practice of hypnotism without a license. Florida law prohibits the practice of hypnotism for therapeutic purposes except for "practitioners of the healing arts," as part of its extensive Hypnosis Law. A plea agreement allowed Kenney to receive a year of probation, after which he gave up his Florida teaching license and moved to North Carolina, where he now operates a bed-and-breakfast.

As it turns out, Florida is not the only state to legislate the practice of hypnotism. The National Guild of Hypnotists provides a 50-state survey on State Law and Legal Issues: 2015 Edition. The Guild provides common-sense advice to members about keeping on the right side of the law, including the avoidance of the word "therapy" and guidance on record-keeping and professional ethics. The end of this publication includes a brief listing of the 15 states which have passed some sort of legislative prohibition on the practice of hypnotism (including Florida), and 15 more which have laws that may be interpreted to prohibit some hypnotism practices.

General Techniques of Hypnotism (1957)
by Andre M. Weitzenhoffer.

To learn more about the history and techniques of hypnotism, search the Duke University Libraries Catalog for the subject heading "Hypnotism." You’ll find titles like 2000's Hypnotism: A History as well as classic texts like Andre M. Weitzenhoffer's General Techniques of Hypnotism and 1903's Complete Hypnotism: Mesmerism, Mind-Reading and Spiritualism, available for free via Project Gutenberg. Discussions of hypnotically-refreshed testimony can be found in most general evidence treatises, accessible through the catalog with a subject search for "Evidence (law) – United States." For help locating these or other resources on hypnosis and the law, be sure to Ask a Librarian.