The death of 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman and violinist Tyler Clementi last week was tragic and terrible. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after two students, his roommate Dharum Ravi and Molly Wei, viewed Clementi having an intimate encounter with another man via webcam on September 19th and then broadcast this on the Internet. Ravi and Wei have both been charged with two counts each of invasion of privacy for using the camera, while Ravi also faces two further counts for a second,unsuccessful, attempt to view and transmit another image of Clementi two days later. As the October 3rd New York Times notes, if Ravi’s actions are ruled a bias crime, this could ‘raise the charges from third-degree invasion of privacy to second degree, and double the possible punishment to 10 years.’
But while New Jersey has a state status about cyberbullying, this may be, as observed in the New York Times, ‘ill suited to Mr. Clementi’s suicide,’ as its focus is on primary and secondary education and is part of the state’s legal code that is about education, rather than criminal acts. Says Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University who specializes in cybercrime,
The fact that a case of bullying ends in suicide should not bend the judgment of prosecutors, he said. Society should be concerned, he said, when it appears that the government is “prosecuting people not for what they did, but for what the victim did in response.”
Finding the right level of prosecution, then, can be a challenge. On the one hand, he said, “it’s college — everybody is playing pranks on everybody else.” On the other, “invading somebody’s privacy can inflict such great distress that invasions of privacy should be punished, and punished significantly.”
And what about the role of society, of our social-media obsessed society in which the founder of Facebook is lionized and the subject of books and a feature film (which is getting quite a bit of attention)? The New York Times further quotes Daniel J. Solove, author of “The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet,” who calls for a focus on education:
“We teach people a lot of the consequences” of things like unsafe driving, he said, “but not that what we do online could have serious consequences.”
Facebook groups have been set up in tribute to Clementi, and in support of Ravi and Wei, as noted on NJ.com on September 30th. A friend of Ravi’s claims that secretly filming Clementi via webcam was meant as a just a ‘prank’—-a comment that suggests educators, and our society as a whole, have a long way to go towards teaching students what’s wrong and right in the wild, poorly regulated world of cyberspace.
Indeed, Ravi and Wei, by the accounts of their peers and community, were unlikely candidates to be charged with bullying. In the NJ.com article, Ravi is described as a ‘“good, quiet kid”’ who came from ‘“fine people, a nice family.”‘ The NJ.com article also quotes the Hemant Marathe, the president of the school board of the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, which Ravi and Wei were both graduates of and which is ‘widely recognized as one of the best in the state.’ According to Marathe,
the district has programs in place to address issues of cyber bullying and that those programs will be reexamined in the wake of the Rutgers incident.
“We will certainly take a look to see what could have been done. This is a matter that will definitely lead to our introspection,” he said.
Let’s hope he really means that—somehow I think a lot more than ‘introspection’ will be needed to stop the bullying.