Tyler Clementi suffered a grotesque invasion of privacy

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

TYLER CLEMENTI'S last message on Facebook was as simple as it was poignant: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."

More details are sure to emerge about the Sept. 22 suicide of this talented violinist, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey. But this much is known: He was secretly videotaped in his dorm room in a sexual encounter with another man. His roommate and another dorm resident are accused of streaming the video on the Internet, where friends and strangers alike could gawk. According to news reports, Mr. Clementi discussed the videotaping incident in a gay online chat room and then reported it to a dorm official. He appeared to be coping well. Then he jumped.

Privacy laws were undoubtedly broken, and law enforcement officials in New Jersey are pursuing a criminal case against the two alleged culprits. Rutgers should consider expulsion. But the response should go beyond this case. Colleges and universities should articulate a zero-tolerance policy for such invasions of privacy. Parents and teachers should use this tragic episode to talk about the need for decency and conscience in real and virtual encounters.

Technology is not the villain. Humans have never needed sophisticated tools to spread malice. Word of mouth and surreptitious notes have long done the trick. But technology has exponentially enabled and emboldened the mean or thoughtless among us. It allows those with less than noble intentions to hide behind screen names or lurk from afar, distancing themselves from their human targets and the possible consequences of their actions. And the trespasses are no longer contained to a circle of friends, a school or a town but accessible to millions.

Mr. Clementi's saga is grief-inducing not because of the breach of laws but because of the heartlessness. Did the video intruders pause to think how they would feel if they had been the targets? Probably not.


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