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Invasion of privacy

Alex Coccia | Monday, October 4, 2010

During the Tiger Woods fiasco, some people (myself included) were outraged at how much the media was allowed to invade the privacy of a person of celebrity status. I wrote for my high school newspaper: “NPR commentator Frank Deford said it best that the media is protected by the ‘First-and-a half Amendment: a combination of freedom of the press and the right to shoot from the hip.’ I am ashamed that the American people are hearing more about Tiger Woods’ personal life than of matters of national and international importance to the safety and security of our world. I am ashamed that the tabloid media can record a chip shot at the 16th hole of the Masters and then turn and use the cameras to invade Tiger’s privacy off of the golf course.”

But, some would argue, Tiger’s celebrity status allows that level of scrutiny by the media — he put himself in that position.

Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, was no such public celebrity, and yet, the dark and malicious act perpetrated by his roommate Dharun Ravi and friend Molly Wei was an invasion of Tyler’s privacy well beyond the excesses of the media. Ravi and Wei turned on Ravi’s webcam from another room to view Clementi having a private encounter with another man. Ravi and Wei transmitted this video over the internet. After discovering what his roommate and friend had been doing, Clementi took his own life by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge. On Sept. 22, his final post on Facebook read, “jumping off the gw bridge, sorry.” Clementi did not put himself in the position for his privacy to be invaded. He was not a celebrity — in fact, as a freshman he was hardly known on campus.

Ravi and Wei have been charged with invasion of privacy, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Gay Rights groups are lobbying that this case be viewed legally as a hate-crime. Politicians in New Jersey are trying to push through legislation that would raise similar offenses to second-degree offenses with a maximum of 10 years sentence and fines of $150,000.

When it comes to the internet and privacy, most people are cautious of malware, spyware, cookies, phishing, search records, password protection and the nature of information that we ourselves share on social networking sites. With all of these possible dangers, the least we should be worrying about is our own roommate. Clementi trusted his roommate by asking him for the room until midnight. Ravi abused Clementi’s trust, and made a sport of it.

There should be no “good guy” defense for Dharun Ravi, who as a legal adult, and a student brilliant enough to attend Rutgers University, should know full well the inappropriateness and evil behind his actions. There is no excuse for what he did, and for what Wei helped him to do. Ravi’s actions exposed the seriousness of invading someone’s privacy for personal entertainment. Technology makes it easier to invade a person’s privacy but it does not make it right. What Ravi thought was funny cost a young man his life.

Rutgers University kicked off a program called Project Civility on Sept. 29 — the day that police pulled Clementi’s body from the Hudson River. The goal of the program is to have panel discussions, lectures and workshops which discuss the importance of compassion when it comes to social interactions. One of the planned panel discussions addresses appropriate behavior with changing technology. This is a good endeavor by a university which has been the cornerstone of many Progressive changes over the years. While too late for Clementi, this program, by touching on Clementi’s death, will hopefully prevent future actions like Ravi’s from occurring. In a video promoting Project Civility, a Rutgers professor says, “I cut young people some slack. When you’re young, you have so many prejudices, that’s part of growing up. But you have to unshed them.” This unshedding of prejudices must be part of the individual’s understanding of social decency, but it must also be the responsibility of the university to help students unshed their prejudices. Hopefully, Project Civility is a start for Rutgers. Rutgers, and any university, must do more than talk the talk.

Ravi’s invasion of Clementi’s privacy is unfortunately something that could happen at any university, even Notre Dame. Clementi’s death is one of five suicides or attempted suicides of gay or perceived gay teens in recent weeks thought to be a result of harassment and bullying. Universities across the country must ensure that discriminatory activities against homosexuals are unacceptable behavior, and must foster a wider acceptance of GLBTQ students and groups. Whatever prejudices exist in students as they enter college, universities have the obligation to expand their knowledge and deepen their understanding to help them overcome those prejudices. Then, such social indecency would hopefully be curbed.

There is a degree to which one should be careful of what he or she makes public, whether on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. But more importantly, leave me my privacy, and I will leave you yours.

Saturday was homecoming week at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. There was a moment of silence for Tyler at the football game Saturday, and a candlelight vigil Sunday. Please, take a moment for yourself, go to the grotto, reflect, and pray for Tyler Clementi.

Alex Coccia is a freshman. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.