The Clementi Suicide and Invasion of Privacy

The media has been reporting on the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University.  From CNN:

On the evening of September 19, Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi is believed to have sent a message by Twitter about his roommate, Tyler Clementi.

“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.”

Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro, New Jersey, surreptitiously placed the camera in their dorm room and broadcast video of Clementi’s sexual encounter on the internet, the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office said. Ravi tried to use the webcam again on two days later, on September 21.

“Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again,” Ravi is believed to have tweeted.

The next day, Clementi was dead

New Jersey authorities said he apparently committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York. A law enforcement source told CNN that Clementi’s wallet and cell phone were found on the bridge.

Two students, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, have been charged with criminal invasion of privacy charges.  The law in New Jersey provides:

2C:14-9.     Invasion of Privacy, Degree of Crime, Defenses, Privileges.

1. a. An actor commits a crime of the fourth degree if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would know that another may expose intimate parts or may engage in sexual penetration or sexual contact, he observes another person without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect to be observed.

b. An actor commits a crime of the third degree if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he photographs, films, videotapes, records, or otherwise reproduces in any manner, the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact, without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect to be observed.

c. An actor commits a crime of the third degree if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he discloses any photograph, film, videotape, recording or any other reproduction of the image of another person whose intimate parts are exposed or who is engaged in an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact, unless that person has consented to such disclosure. For purposes of this subsection, “disclose” means sell, manufacture, give, provide, lend, trade, mail, deliver, transfer, publish, distribute, circulate, disseminate, present, exhibit, advertise or offer. Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection b. of N.J.S.2C:43-3, a fine not to exceed $30,000 may be imposed for a violation of this subsection.

From the facts I’ve learned thus far, it remains unclear precisely what motivated Ravi and Wei’s actions.  What is clear is that this case illustrates that young people are not being taught how to use the Internet responsibly.  Far too often, privacy invasions aren’t viewed as a serious harm.  They are seen a joke, as something causing minor embarrassment.  This view is buttressed by courts that routinely are dismissive of privacy harms.  It continues to persist because few people ever instruct young people about how serious privacy invasions are.   Another attitude that remains common is that the Internet is a radically-free zone, and people can say or post whatever they want with impunity.

But privacy is a serious matter.  People are irreparably harmed by the disclosure of their personal data, their intimate moments, and their closely-held secrets.  Free speech isn’t free.  Freedom of speech is robust, but it is far from absolute.  Today, everyone has a profound set of powers at their fingertips — the ability to capture information easily and disseminate it around the world in instant.  These were powers only a privileged few used to have.  But with power must come responsibility.  Using the Internet isn’t an innocuous activity, but is a serious one, more akin to driving a car than to playing a video game.  Young people need to be taught this.  The consequences to themselves and others are quite grave.

I doubt Ravi and Wei realized that their actions would contribute to a young man’s suicide.  I doubt they had any idea that their actions were criminal.  They’ve learned these lessons now.   Sadly, it is far too late.

Image of the George Washington Bridge where Clementi committed suicide from Wiki Commons

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8 Responses

  1. Dissent says:

    As is generally the case, we agree (I had posted my thoughts about this tragic case at http://www.pogowasright.org/?p=15080 ).

    What I keep coming back to is that parents and adults cannot try to teach youth respect for privacy if at the same time we are invading youth’s privacy ourselves or grooming them for a surveillance state. If students feel that they have no genuine privacy of their own, why would they respect anyone else’s privacy? This may not be an issue of responsible Internet use per se as much as a generalization of offline learning.

    Telling youth to respect others’ privacy is doomed to failure if we don’t model respect for youth’s privacy.

    And as we agree, the courts need to recognize how serious privacy harm is.

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    I agree that the privacy harm here is egregious and deserves significant punishment. At the same time, I don’t think this has anything to do with how courts decide privacy cases or about government surveillance programs. Every computer comes with this surveillance power, and popular movies like American Pie celebrate its use as an amusing prank. In contrast, the law makes this plainly illegal. This is about culture, not law, and I think the influence of the latter on the former is very very modest here.

  3. Dissent says:

    Orin:

    I’m unclear why you mention government surveillance since neither Dan nor I referred to that as a cause of this problem. I was referring to how schools and parents are surveilling youth, which I see as a societal and growing problem that has a direct bearing on how youth view privacy expectations and responsibilities. There may be a moderator influence of governmental surveillance in that if parents accept being surveilled, their children will be more likely to accept it, too, but I wasn’t discussing that.

    The law may make what happened in this case plainly illegal, but I agree with Dan that, in general, the courts have not adequately recognized privacy harm. That may be a failure of the laws more than the courts, but anyone who follows lawsuits on privacy breaches or data breaches knows not to expect the courts to give any comfort to plaintiffs over emotional distress or embarrassment, etc.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    Dissent,

    I assumed you were using “surveillance state” to mean government surveillance — that is, surveillance by the state. Sorry if I misunderstood.

    As for whether the courts adequately recognize privacy harms in civil suits, I don’t know: I don’t closely follow assessments of civil damages by judges in civil privacy law suits, so I can’t say. But I think that issue is quite different from the issue here.

  5. Dissent says:

    Orin,

    Apart from civil suits, where only celebrities seem to get any real money from the media:

    Look at what’s happened when people have been convicted under HIPAA for privacy violations. They’ve generally gotten probation or a few months in jail.

    Many states have a maximum sentence of 1 year or 2 years for privacy invasion. NJ is actually tougher than many other states.

    I don’t think the laws adequately reflect the seriousness of privacy harms. And based on the court cases I’ve seen (civil and criminal), I don’t think the courts have generally given out the max they can give out under the laws.

    But as you know, IANAL. I’ll have to leave it to Dan and others to make the legal arguments. 🙂

  6. Daniel Conti says:

    I am curious to know what your take is on the possible additional charges that might be brought as a result of public pressure, such as bias crimes or even manslaughter.Seems to me that the invasion of privacy charges are all that’s warranted here.

  7. doesnt matter says:

    Hmm so what i love about all these articles is that everyone focuses soley on the invasion of privacy and not on the matter that the video was probably just a catalyst for some deeper problems, no one talks about the fact that the guy was probably deppressed and blamed himself everyone focuses on the point of privacy which is the only reason his suicide made national news in the first place.

  8. Amina Husain says:

    I am glad that NJ has a stringent law in place that enforces privacy in this digital world. It’s so easy to use technology in a way that can cause serious damage to a person with a single click of a button. But this case can also argue for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. It satisfies the four criteria: 1. an intentional act 2. that is extreme and outrageous 3. and causes 4. severe emotional distress. Filming an individual without consent and disseminating information on the sexual orientation of that person is considered discrimination. Information such as this is a private matter that should not be publicized without the consent of the individual. The lack of consent is sufficient grounds for criminal action against Ravi and Molly.