In Honor of Tyler Clementi

If you’re reading this in your dorm room during your daily blog roll, I encourage you to change out of your casual Friday outfit and put on some classic black – New Jersey’s Rutgers University has organized a “Black Friday” memorial today for Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide after being outed on the Internet by his roommate.

It started out as a harmless prank that became an invasion of privacy and deadly, anti-gay harassment. Tyler Clementi, an eighteen year-old Rutgers freshman, asked his roommate, Dharun Ravi, for some privacy in the room they shared. Ravi complied by killing time with Molly Wei down the hall, where they used her computer to log onto Skype and access his own webcam back in his and Clementi’s room. Whether by accident or on purpose, they allegedly caught Clementi and another male in what authorities called a “sexual encounter.”

And what did Ravi do with that information? The same thing all students living and connecting in the 21st century do when we’ve got something to share (be it a great new product or annoying things our roommates say): he Tweeted. The video he captured was also streamed live online, and Ravi and Wei repeated the ritual to try and catch Tyler in the act again a few nights later. The video spread fast, as the most scandalous often do, and the public revelation of Clementi’s secret sexual orientation ultimately drove him to jump off the George Washington bridge.

This story is disturbing on two very serious levels. First, Tyler Clementi is the third male within a month that has taken his own life as a result of anti-gay harassment. It is a sad reminder that although the 21st century has brought its share of liberation for the gay community, there are still a number of battles left in this war against homophobia (including the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell debate). A war which clearly has tragic consequences.

Second, Clementi is an innocent victim of cyber bullying, a form of harassment that includes everything from direct and intentional pestering online to being blasted on someone else’s Facebook wall. We all know the positive points of social networking very well: the ease of staying in touch, the ability to video chat with friends in other countries without pay, and spread good news to everyone you care about with a single 140-character update. But technology has also made it way too easy to give anyone a hard time, encouraged and accessible behind the falsely secure mask of a computer screen. And now that everyone – including professors, parents and potential employers – is active in the online community, every click has its consequences.

For Tyler, it was an untimely death.
For his bullies, it is four counts of invasion of privacy (one in particular carries a maximum sentence of five years), and, for Ravi, $25,000 bail.

Today – whether you knew him or not, whether you’re wearing black or not – let Tyler’s tragic ending be a reminder to us all of the importance of human decency and the frightening power of the Internet.

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