I could write about how Tyler Clementi’s suicide was in part fueled by the rampant anti-gay rhetoric of Tea Party people and their candidates. Or how incredibly sad it is that in 2010 being outted as gay is still something that would drive a talented young man to jump off the George Washington Bridge. But this blog is about legal issues so I ‘ll try to stay on point and leave the social commentary to others.
The facts of the case are desperately sad but equally straightforward. Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi were both 18 and roommates at Rutgers University. By accident one day, Ravi realized that his laptop webcam was on and he saw Tyler making out with another man. He broadcast the footage over the internet. Tyler was aware of this due to the viral nature of such postings and he complained to Campus Security. He later made some anonymous and anguishing posts about how frustrating it was that it appeared the school was not doing anything quickly enough about this invasion of his privacy. A few days later, Ravi did it again and made some other hurtful, anti-gay comments on some of his posts. This time he was helped by his girlfriend Molly Wei, also 18. Two days later, Tyler jumped to his death off the GW Bridge.
This tragedy is a crime that could only have occurred in this day and age. As the movie “The Social Network” premieres this weekend on its way to the likely No. 1 spot, it becomes clear that this world of instant information and complete connectivity has desensitized a whole generation. I had previously written on this blog about how the FB generation was utterly losing the appreciation for privacy that is the whole foundation of the Bill of Rights (“Expectation of Privacy Dying a Slow Death and Our Rights Will Go With It” June 8, 2010). They are also losing an understanding of the impact and permanency of an internet post. When rumors used to spread around the schoolyard or lunch room, they were short-lived and contained to a select group. When you and your buddy tried to sneak a peek in the girl’s locker room, it was “boys will be be boys.” No more. Now the words and pictures are forever cached and stored on the internet, seen by nearly everyone you know in a matter of moments. The rumor’s reach becomes unavoidable, inescapable. A hidden video clip from your bedroom is even worse, of course; its an outright invasion into the most private sections of your life viewed by the masses.
Gregory Jantz, founder of a Seattle mental health center called Place for Hope, quoted in today’s Newsday, states that the main problem is people “don’t realize how hurtful [cyberbullying] can be because many of them have grown up in a world that has blurred the line between public and private.” You have to wonder, Can we ever regain our respect for privacy?
What that means is that such conduct (rumor-spreading, pranks, spying) takes on new significance and deeper consequences. It means that behavior that was once childish and mean-spirited is now criminal. Ravi and Wei were only charged with invasion of privacy and collecting sexual images without consent. They were not charged with manslaughter, nor do I think the law could sustain that charge as it would be impossible to prove that it was a known risk that this conduct could lead to suicide. But who knows? As these incidents become more prevalent (and they will) perhaps a statute will be drafted that could increase the jail time allowable if the criminal conduct leads to the serious injury or death of the target of the abuse. According to the Associated Press, since 2003 12 children between the ages of 11 and 18 have committed suicide after falling victim to some form of cyber-bullying. That’s a little more than two a year. But this past six to eight weeks alone four such cases have occurred. I think it will soon be harder to say that no one could have foreseen the consequences.
These kids face a maximum of five years. The maximum sentence could double if the NJ authorities charge this as a hate crime. The only hope that could possibly come from this is that maybe its a warning bell, a wake-up call to teens and young adults especially, that now its not just sticks and stones that could do serious harm, but hurtful words and images as well.