Tyler Clementi Suicide: Will The Law Hold Cyber-Bullies Civilly Liable?

The most recent example of how social media has come to bring the culture in this country down even further, is yet another tragic tale: Tyler Clementi, an 18 year-old gay student at Rutgers University, took his life earlier this week by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in New York City. The reason for his suicide: His roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi’s classmate, Molly Wei, secretly videotaped sexual encounters between Clementi and another gay man, and then. according to published media reports, posted the video on YouTube. Humiliated and desperate, Clementi took his life.

The tragic sequence of events began with a Twitter post sent on Sept. 19 by Ravi: “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.” Later that night, according to investigators, Ravi used a video camera that he had set up in his dormitory room to live stream Clementi’s intimate encounter on the Internet. Three days later, Clementi, by all accounts a fine person and an accomplished violinist – killed himself by jumping from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River. A promising young life that could have brought beautiful music into the world, amidst all the ugliness this world can offer, gone. This is just the latest in a series of deaths by young American, all of which followed the online posting of vicious and hurtful material.

The Middlesex County, New Jersey District Attorney’s office have charged Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro, N.J., and Molly Wei, 18, of Princeton Junction, N.J., each with two counts of invasion of privacy for using “the camera to view and transmit a live image” of Mr. Clementi. In addition, Ravi was charged with two additional counts of invasion of privacy for attempting to post a similar live feed on the Internet on Sept. 21, the day before Clementi’s suicide. In New Jersey, the most serious charges carry a maximum sentence of five years.

Social media: “A great way to bring us all closer together”; “A superior technological development”; “A resource to help us understand each other.” These are just some of the descriptions I recall hearing about services such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other such social media sites. It hasn’t really turned out all so rosy, has it? Instead, “social media” seems to have brought out some of the worst parts of the human being: The cruel, the harmful, the amoral and the immoral. Brought us “closer together”? You’ve got to be kidding. Prior to social media and the internet, people actually got together to talk. They’d actually get off their couches and go to see someone, face-to-face. However it may seem a distant memory, that’s how people stayed close and connected. Now, the average person would respond to a suggestion that two social friends actually meet, with a confused annoyance. (“Why would I do that when I can just Facebook or email you?”)All this, in my view, degrades us and alienates us socially, but this blog isn’t about sociology, it’s about Massachusetts personal injury law. So in Part Two of this post I’ll discuss the possible civil law ramifications of events like this. In the meantime, let us hope that the criminal justice system in New Jersey, can move fast and effectively in this case.