Eavesdropping / Wiretapping, Education / Schools, Gay, Pranks, Privacy, Suicide

Invasion of Privacy or College Prank Gone Wrong (or Both)? What to Do With Tyler Clementi’s Roommate

Tyler Clementi

Over the past few days, we’ve learned a lot about Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers college student and talented violinist who killed himself after his roommate streamed, live on the internet, a hidden webcam video of Tyler hooking up with another man. On September 22, a few days after the incident, Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

Former ATL editor Kashmir Hill has learned even more. She’s been tracking Clementi’s digital footprints, and found that he went to a message board for gay men seeking counsel after he learned of his roommate’s prank.

I used the word “prank” because that’s how I see the actions of Tyler Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi. Ravi is an 18-year-old kid in his first semester at college. Along with a friend, Molly Wei, Ravi pulled a prank on his new roommate — one that went horribly wrong.

Because Clementi killed himself, the media has worked itself into a rabid lather over Ravi’s and Wei’s actions. The story was all over the New York Times yesterday. Michael Daly criticized Ravi so harshly I thought I was reading about some kind of modern day Billy Zabka in the New York Daily News this morning. Some gay rights groups want Ravi to be charged with a hate crime.

Before we crucify this college freshman, I have a couple of questions…

True story: when I was a college freshman, I pulled pranks. Some were funny, some I’m not proud of, some I’m not proud of but were still goddamn hilarious at the time. Freshman year one of my roommates was dating a girl who was a virgin, and one night that classification ended… loudly. Rallying the rest of my roommate crew, we sat in the common room drinking beers and making jokes (protip: your black friend’s fake i.d. is more reliable than your white friend’s fake i.d. if the goal is to purchase alcohol from a white person). As the amorous sounds emanating from the bedroom reached a crescendo, another buddy flipped on the CD player (I’m old), and I immediately popped in Breaking the Girl. Then we sang. Then we demanded an encore. Did I mention we were 18-year-old boys?

If God had invented remote-control hidden webcams way back then, would I have used one? Probably. Would my film-school friend have edited the video to dub Breaking the Girl into the video? Most likely. Would we have posted the video on YouTube, or at the very least kept it on a running loop on a (not yet invented) HD flat screen television in our common room, for two weeks (or until the roommate/victim punched one of us in the mouth)? Who’s to say?

And if I had done all those things, would I have crossed the line into “invasion of privacy”? Almost certainly yes.

But here’s my question for all those who think Dharun Ravi committed a despicable act of bullying that should be punished to the full extent of the law: If Tyler Clementi hadn’t made the decision to take his own life, would anybody really care about the actions of Dharun Ravi? It’s not even clear that Ravi would have even been expelled from school, much less been charged with a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. This kind of stuff happens at college all the time, and the “but for” cause for this tragedy, if anything, is as much Clementi’s own decision as it is Ravi’s decision to spy on his roommate.

It wasn’t clear to Clementi that anything would have happened to Ravi had Clementi complained. Kash dug up this post from Clementi left on the JustUsBoys message board:

I’m kinda pissed at him (rightfully so I think, no?) and idk…if I could…it would be nice to get him in trouble but idk if I have enough to get him in trouble, i mean…he never saw anything pornographic…he never recorded anything…

I feel like the only thing the school might do is find me another roommate, probably with me moving out…and i’d probably just end up with somebody worse than him….I mean aside from being an asshole from time to time, he’s a pretty decent roommate…

Later, Clementi posted this:

oh yah, on the school website it says recording people where there is an expectation of privacy (bathroom bedroom etc) without the consent of everyone involved could….COULD…..result in being expelled

the only things is…there are too many ‘could’s ….the fact that he didn’t ACTUALLY record me (to my knowledge) and the fact that the school really prolly won’t do much of anything….

Now, some people will use these quotes to make an argument that the school itself created an environment that allowed Clementi to be cyber-bullied to the point where he killed himself. And maybe those people are right. Maybe, in the digital age, high schools and universities need to go out of their way to let people know that these kinds of privacy invasions will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

But there are all kinds of laws you can break on America’s college campuses where the administration generally “looks the other way,” and we are (generally) fine with it. Underage drinking happens at college, illicit drug use happens at college, indecent exposure is a tradition at some colleges. There are all kinds of stupid and generally illegal activities kids do when they show up on campus.

I’m not saying that Ravi shouldn’t be punished in some way; I’m saying that a college freshman invading the privacy of another college freshman is hardly breaking news.

What makes it “news” is that Clementi killed himself. That’s tragic. But that was also his choice. Lots of kids get humiliated their freshman year of college. When I was at school, a girl did really crappy on her first set of finals, went home, and threw herself in front of a subway. That was sad, but I didn’t hear anybody calling on the university to relax its grading standards so fewer people feel compelled to end it all.

The other aspect of this story that has captured national attention is the fact that Clementi was gay, and the tryst Ravi exposed was homosexual in nature. But I’ve yet to see compelling evidence that Ravi did this because his roommate was gay. We’ll probably never know whether or not Ravi would have recorded the session if his roommate was hooking up with a girl.

Absent evidence of hate or even malicious intent, all I see is an 18-year-old who pulled a prank on his new roommate. If we’re going to punish him, fine. But let’s punish him as an 18-year-old prankster, not as a monster who stood next to Tyler Clementi and harangued him into jumping off a bridge.

Tyler Clementi Turned To A Gay Message Forum For Help Before His Suicide [Forbes]
Private Moment Made Public, Then a Fatal Jump [New York Times]
Bullying has no bounds on the Internet, as suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi shows [New York Daily News]

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