Suicide and cyber-bullying at Rutgers
Rutgers University student took his life after being the victim of cyber-bullying.
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Rutgers University first-year student Tyler Clementi, of Ridgewood, NJ, jumped off the George Washington Bridge and took his life on Friday, September 22 after his roommate and another student secretly filmed and then posted footage of Clementi’s intimate encounter with another man online, according to authorities. His body was found in the Hudson River on Wednesday, September 29.
Rutger’s first-year students Dharun Ravi—Clementi’s roommate—and Molly Wei, both 18, are facing serious criminal charges, including invasion of privacy. Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce J. Kaplan said that hate charges against the students are on the table under New Jersey’s hate-crime laws. Such a move could raise punishment from five to 10 years in prison. Websites have cropped up dedicated to defending the innocence of the students, while others proclaim that the pair should be charged with manslaughter.
An October 1 article from NPR.org said, regarding the potential charge of a hate crime, that “The legal question has to do with the motive. A person can be found guilty of a bias crime in New Jersey if the jury agrees that he or she committed a crime because of a belief that the victim is a member of a protected group, such as a racial minority or gay.”
It is a fourth-degree crime, under New Jersey law, to “collect or view images depicting nudity or sexual contact involving another individual without that individual’s consent and a third-degree crime to transmit or distribute such images....The penalty for a third-degree offense can include a prison term of up to five years” according to a September 29 article in The Daily Targum, Rutgers’ student paper.
Interviews with over 30 students on the Hill found that only just over half had heard about Clementi. Students surveyed overwhelmingly agreed that Ravi and Wei should be charged with invasion of privacy. On the issue of whether exposing Clementi’s sexual activities online was a bias crime, students surveyed were split. Over half said it should be considered a bias crime, however a handful hesitated to say that it would be—many cited the fact that they could not confirm, nor did they have enough evidence to conclude that this crime was motivated by hate or homophobia. Some students even said that they had heard of similar issues at other universities where sex tapes between heterosexual couples were exposed online.
At the center of the tragedy is social media. It began when Ravi sent a Twitter message on Tuesday, September 19 that read, “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
It ended on September 22 at 8:42 p.m. when Clementi posted this message on his Facebook page: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
According to the NPR article, a gossip website called Gawker found postings on, “a graphic gay-oriented website after realizing his roommate was ‘spying’ on him with a webcam.”
According to the NPRâ€ˆarticle, “The author described his conflicted feelings [on the gay-oriented website] after reading his roommate's tweets about the author kissing a guy in their room while he watched from afar. Should he report his roommate or request a room change? Would either help or just make things worse? The author later wrote that he told a resident assistant about the filming—and that he unplugged his roommate’s computer and searched the room for hidden cameras before another liaison.”
The tragedy has once again brought up the question of how to address cyber-bullying. As an October 2 article in the New York Times by John Schwartz asked, “What should the punishment be for acts like cyberbullying and online humiliation?
“That question is as difficult to answer as how to integrate our values with all the things in our lives made of bits, balancing a right to privacy with the urge to text, tweet, stream and post.
“And the outcry over proper punishment is also part of the continuing debate about how to handle personal responsibility and freedom. Just how culpable is an online bully in someone’s decision to end a life?”
These sentiments were echoed by students surveyed on the Hill. It’s a delicate line to walk, and these are questions that have made cyber-bullying difficult to punish in the past.
According to an October 3 article in The Daily Targum, “Middlesex County College first-year student Paul Zilber, an acquaintance of Clementi, said it is difficult to find a safe zone at the University. ‘There is no safe zone at Rutgers,’ Zilber said. ‘A safe zone is somewhere people can go to be themselves without the fear of being harassed or judged.’ Zilber said people do not speak out about the issue as often as they should until a tragedy like this occurs. ‘I am devastated by this tragedy. I can't sleep at night thinking about what happened,’ he said.”
Here on the Hill, out gay student and member of the College’s gay-straight alliance The Bridge, Patrick Adams ’13 spoke about degrees of safety here for gay students. “In a physical sense I don’t think safety is a major issue at Colby,” he said. “However, the degree to which students feel comfortable enough to be themselves is a much bigger problem. I bet it is not uncommon for students to develop depression, or unsafe drinking habits, for example, as a result of the social environment on campus. I have an amazing group of friends and teammates who treat me no differently than if I were straight, so I feel perfectly safe, but I’m sure a closeted freshman would think very differently. Unfortunately I think far more people are dealing with these unspoken internal issues—that can ultimately lead to suicide—than we realize.”
Andrew Cox ’11, is also out on campus. He said he feels safe here, but not comfortable. “While gay students’ personal safety is not at issue, the general campus culture of tolerance rather than acceptance makes being an out gay student on campus difficult,” he said. The same culture exists at Rutgers, Cox said, but the College can learn from it. “We can ask ourselves how the small indiscretions we let happen daily on our own campus can affect students of all minority groups, and we can ask ourselves how we, as members of the Colby community, can commit to having the difficult conversations with people that change behaviors and change minds. Rejecting the idea that ‘gay’ or ‘slut’...are just words and aren’t meant to be offensive is the only way to eradicate the remnants of discrimination in an otherwise inclusive student body.”