Tragedy raises questions about privacy and acceptance

By Allie Ward and Rachel Gouk

From left, Justin Mersinger, Kaitlin Bishop, Chris Shepherd, Brenna Siminson and Manny Suarez discuss the Rutgers tragedy.

A senior at Rider victimized recently by vicious gossip on CollegeACB.com may have a better understanding than most of what 18-year-old Tyler Clementi was thinking when he committed suicide.

“A thread was posted about me and got out of control with crazy rumors about how I was arrested and was transferring and selling drugs,” she said, speaking on  condition of anonymity. “You worry if employers will Google you and that will come up. It’s embarrassing to even admit that it happened to me.”

No one was physically hurt in her case, but last month at Rutgers University, a similar cyber-bullying experience drove a freshman to take his own life.

Clementi committed suicide on Sept. 22 after his roommate secretly video-streamed Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man live over the Internet. The incident has drawn national and international attention, with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) groups condemning the actions of Clementi’s roommate Dharun Ravi and suspected accomplice Molly Wei. The pair has been charged with third- and fourth-degree invasion of privacy.

Outrage over the Rutgers incident was felt at Rider this week. It sparked heated discussions among students, teachers and administrators over privacy, the law and acceptance of gays.

“I think that a lot of times cyber bullying can get written off because it’s not tangible — no one gets a black eye because you posted something about them — but this is an unfortunate example that what should be something used to connect people must be used with caution,” said senior Joanna Grillo. “It’s a shame that someone who was trying to be himself had his life end because of a coward’s amusement.”

Dean of Students Anthony Campbell said he hopes  Clementi’s case will spur students to think about how they are using social media websites.

“What bothers me more is the casual way that people will use electronic media to get back at someone for something,” Campbell said. “I hope that this will become a wake-up call for people.”

Members of Rider’s Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) jumped to action and showed their support for Clementi by attending a silent vigil at Rutgers on Sunday.

“People are disgusting with what they like to say and do, and they love to do it anonymously which makes it even worse,” said senior Justin Mersinger, president of GSA.

The effects of these so-called “cyber-bullying crimes” can be felt even at a smaller school like Rider, with the JuicyCampus pandemic ending in 2009 and the newest hate site, CollegeACB.com, growing in popularity. In a world where face-to-face interaction is quickly slipping away and easy access to the Internet allows us to say whatever we want with very few consequences, what standards of privacy can college students expect to have and how far is too far in the eyes of the law?

Sticks and stones?

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare  — social media tools are ingrained in our society. But the mainstays on the social networking scene are giving way to other, more hurtful sites, like JuicyCampus and now CollegeACB.com.

The concept for these types of sites is simple — go to the site, find your school and read the latest gossip, posted anonymously for all to see. But it gets into tricky territory when the potentially libelous, defamatory information aims to hurt the victim.

Dr. John Suler, a professor in the Psychology Department who specializes in cyberspace psychology, said that people lose all perspective when it comes to the Internet and posting personal information.

“They don’t realize that if you put this online, it’s not just a few people who see it,” he said. “Cyberspace has really taken it to another level where people can torment other people from a distance.”

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, cyber bullying is “when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.”

Dr. Pamela Brown, chair of the Communication and Journalism Department and professor of communication law, said that the issue of anonymity makes it difficult to punish those responsible.

“It’s not impossible to get a court order to require a provider to identify who these posters are, but it’s harder in some states than others, and New Jersey happens to be one of those states that it is hard to get a court order for,” she said. “There is a lot of protection for the site; the law does protect the site. It’s the person you can sue.”

Campbell says he has been concerned with cyber bullying on campus for a while.

“If you remember a couple years ago when JuicyCampus came out we actually brought in the New Jersey Attorney General to give a talk to the students about cyber bullying and about the laws,” he said. “I have plans for doing that again this year.”

While cyber bullying may be considered morally wrong, do students make themselves susceptible by posting private information on public websites?

“The questions about privacy are profound,” said Dr. Anne Law, chair of the Psychology Department. “What becomes OK to expose about oneself and of others is ambiguous.”

Senior Chris Shepherd, vice president of GSA, also believes the lines between what’s public and what’s private are not black and white.

“As we’ve grown with the Internet, our public lives and our private lives are blurring,” he said.

What can be done?

Clementi’s death has ignited a firestorm of backlash from the LGBT and straight communities, with Facebook lynch mobs dedicated to Ravi and Wei.

Brown said that it is almost predictable that cases like these will continue to happen — that other young victims of cyber bullying of this kind will take a drastic route similar to what Clementi did. She argues that in a case like this where emotions run high, a society often wants more “extreme punishment,” but most likely won’t get it.

“There is not going to be a severe punishment — probably probation,” Brown said. “I don’t think they could be successfully convicted because, as I understand the law, they would have had to have a reason to anticipate that [Clementi committing suicide] would be the outcome of their behavior, and I can’t imagine that that is true.”

The stigma attached to the case will follow Ravi and Wei for the rest of their lives, Brown continues.

“They’re [already] being severely punished,” she said. “This is never going away from their lives. Anytime they’re Googled, this is going to pop up and they have to live with it in their own minds, and in their own lives.”

Mersinger thinks awareness will help people become more understanding.

“As people grow up, they develop preconceived notions of what is right and what is wrong and then to try and change that becomes much more difficult,” he said. “The education system needs to implement more diversity into their classrooms and show that minorities — gays, blacks, Hindus, whatever — are the same as the majority.”

Shepherd said people will always feel the need to attack others, but education can lead to more open-mindedness.

“The only thing to deter it from happening as much as possible would be education, and teaching people the morals of life and respecting one another,” Shepherd said.

On the home front

Students say they are outraged by the incident at Rutgers, and many feel any cyber bullying on Rider’s campus must be stopped.

Clementi’s suicide prompted senior Amber Currie, GSA’s vice president of development, to start a new group on campus, Rider Allies Against Bullying (RAAB) (see sidebar).

“I had been hearing of all these suicides by young teens and it was terrible, but when I heard about this incident I knew I had to do something,” Currie said. “I could not believe that bullying was not ending by the time students reach college.”

Campbell said that while Rider has had its share of hate-related incidents, both in real life and online, Rider’s small community environment is as good a deterrent as any.

“Have we had incidents? Sure. We’ve had people put swastikas on doors, we’ve had people write the n-word, but we address it. That’s all we can do,” he said. “Being a small community, I think that makes a huge difference because we know each other as people. You’re not an anonymous person; we know you by name.”

Additional reporting by Kevin Whitehead, Emily Landgraf and Dalton Karwacki.

Sidebar: What’s RAAB?
Rider Allies Against Bulling (RAAB), a new club developing on campus, is being formed as a direct result of the death of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, according to founding senior Amber Currie.

RAAB will seek to prevent bullying through a variety of events and programs. Currie said she resolved to start such an organization after she heard about Clementi’s suicide.

Currie believes that the key to solving the social problems that led to Clementi’s suicide is education.

“Schools, parents, workplaces and the media need to teach people that it’s okay to be LGBTQI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer/Questioning, Intersex] and that it’s OK to be an ally [someone who supports equality for all],” Currie said.

This is not all that can be done to prevent bullying, according to Currie. It is also important to stand up against acts of bullying that one might come across.

“If you see bullying happening, say something,” Currie said. “Afterward, let the victim know that you are there for them.”

Currie explained her hopes for the burgeoning club.

“Hopefully RAAB, GSA and other organizations will be a safe space for people as well as an educational tool to help end bullying.”

-Dalton Karwacki

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