I’m pretty sure we all saw this coming. The parents of Tyler Clementi — the Rutgers freshman who killed himself after his roommate taped and broadcast Tyler’s gay hook-up — have
declared their intent preserved their right to sue the university. The Clementis suggest that the university failed to protect their son, articulating various tort claims against the school and even a breach of contract claim (Rutgers broke its agreement with Clementi by not preventing what happened to him). Damages are unspecified, but Clementi’s family is claiming pain and suffering, as well as loss of companionship.
(UPDATE: As Kash noted over at Forbes, the Clementi family just issued a statement “clarifying that they have not yet decided whether they will sue, but filed notice with the university today to preserve their right to sue in the future.” Hence the edit in the preceding paragraph.)
A lawsuit by the Clementis should surprise no one. Rutgers has much deeper pockets than Dharun Ravi, the roommate who used a webcam to broadcast Clementi’s affair, or Molly Wei, the girl who was in the room while Ravi messed with his roommate. Ravi and Wei have already been charged with invasion of privacy, and prosecutors are still trying to figure out if they can bootstrap hate crime charges against Ravi and Wei. But when it came to the civil lawsuits, this was always going to come down to the parents versus Rutgers.
Because when your kid jumps off a bridge, there just has to be somebody to blame….
I was watching a Law & Order rerun last night (apparently the episode is called Avatar — it was during a season with the gawd-awful female cop so I don’t feel bad about spoiling it), and at one point Jack McCoy callously tells a grieving widower that if he had been paying more attention to his child then perhaps his daughter wouldn’t have solicited the murder of her mother/his wife. I thought: “Always nice to see Jack being a self-righteous prick. Especially when he’s right.”
I bring this up now because I’m not like Jack McCoy. I’m not going to tell grieving parents that maybe they could have done something else to prevent their kid’s suicide. Suicide is always a personal choice and you can only hope and pray that the families of suicide victims don’t spend a lot of time torturing themselves with things that they could have done. It’s not their fault their son jumped off the George Washington Bridge.
But it’s not Rutgers fault either. It’s just not. Rutgers wasn’t on the bridge, it didn’t push anybody off the bridge, it didn’t encourage anybody to jump off the bridge. What it did was put two freshmen together in a dorm room. Now if this gets to a trial stage, I’m sure we’ll learn that Tyler Clementi asked to get out of that room. Maybe we’ll find out that he even begged to get out of that room, and maybe we’ll find out that some low-level Rutgers official laughed in his face. Maybe Tyler Clementi “strenuously objected” to his roommate situation and maybe Rutgers did nothing. But at the end of the day, Rutgers did not order the code red.
I get that there is somebody dead here, and I get that in our Law & Order culture we expect blame and punishment to be dealt in a neat and clean package. But sometimes nobody is to blame. To use a sports analogy, sometimes a good referee will make a “no-call.” Yes there was contact on the play, yes that contact affected the outcome of the play, but there was no foul.
Of course Clementi’s family is going to sue. And that’s fine. I expect New Jersey prosecutors to show a modicum of common sense when it comes to Ravi and Wei, but we can’t expect grieving families to be restrained in a situation like this. They are well within their rights to hammer away. That’s why we have courts that are supposed to be able to sort out the hysterical families from the victims who deserve justice. I’m not going to lose any sleep over the plight of Rutgers University. They have money and they have lawyers and they will be able to competently defend themselves (or settle to make it all go away).
But it’d be great if the general public could hold off in its desire to avenge the death of Tyler Clementi by holding responsible everybody and everything we can get our hands on. It’d be great if the Tyler Clementi tragedy didn’t lead our courts and politicians towards holding universities to an unreasonable standard of social control over their students. Instead of focusing on the BS minutiae of Rutgers’s housing policy, it’d be great if we could look into how all universities handle suicide prevention and whether we need more money or better laws to make that aspect of campus life more valuable.
Because let me put it this way: if some kid graduates from Rutgers with a whole bunch of debt and a degree that can’t get him a job, and then he throws himself off the GW Bridge, only a few people will be talking about holding the school “responsible for its actions or inactions.” One kid reacts to one embarrassing situation in a tragic way, and it’s national news. Thousands of kids of getting reamed by the entire system of higher education, and nobody seems to care. Do we really need a martyr to get these much bigger issues more coverage?
So let’s keep our eyes on the ball here about what a university can control, and what it cannot.