Clementi's Death: A Call to Action
By Stella Honey Yoon '14
Tyler Clementi’s jump off the George Washington Bridge wasn’t just a consequence of a privacy breach. It wasn’t only his love life being publicly broadcasted online that caused the fall of this 18-year-old Rutgers freshman. It was the swarm of hurtful responses online and in his school community regarding his sexuality that ultimately triggered this unfortunate end to a promising student and violinist. The two students — one of which was Clementi’s roommate — who broadcasted Clementi’s intimate encounter with a male interest via a hidden camera in Clementi’s dorm room, are now being charged with severe criminal offenses which include invasion of privacy. The debate at hand is whether or not the conviction of five years in prison that the students may receive is enough punishment for pushing an innocent student to his end.

While public outrage has triggered many to demand charges of manslaughter for the two students, there is not enough legal evidence of direct cause and effect to pull the case through. Although the broadcasting of Clementi’s act of intimacy was the initial trigger that caused the havoc, it is a stretch to say that the two students were solely responsible for the stream of online responses and abuse that followed. Thus the question of who is to blame and to what extent lies at a grey line that the current law cannot define or limit with ease. Should prosecution follow the law, or should it take into account the brimming social anger?

While responding to the public sentiment seems like a popular choice, it is a response that only deals with the singular event about what happened, rather than plunging into the question of why. The well-known and well-avoided truth to the situation is the looming presence of discrimination against sexual orientation and the blatant display of bigotry through the most pervasive communication technologies of today. Slamming down a harsh sentence for Clementi’s aggressors would be a symbolic gesture of public justice doing its work; yet what good would it do after the two individuals are punished and the case is forgotten until another unfortunate incident sheds faint light on it?

The case embodies a societal problem, not an individual offense. Criminalizing two individuals is a nominal measure that bypasses the cultural stigma against sexual diversity that unfortunately presides over our 20th century American society. If the prosecution must follow the law, the law must change to meet the needs of society. The problems presented in this case are tri-fold. First, sexual bigotry is hindering diversity and acceptance of others, regardless of orientation. Second, current technology, particularly the Internet with its networking and video communication tools, has been misused to harm others based on sexual preferences and other issues of diversity. Third, legislation dealing with issues of sexual disrespect, cyber-bullying and online humiliation should act in symbiosis to crack down on this case and cases like it.

Furthermore, it is not just legislation that should be used to address the issue. It is our society that must be required to take an active stance against what is a hurtful and discriminatory stigma. Emphasis on accepting diversity and responsible online behavior needs to be a nation-wide focus, especially in educational institutions, so that the attitude of diversity and respect would replace the current paradigm of bigotry that is frequently pushed under the carpet.

Tyler Clementi’s unfortunate death is not merely a somber reminder of the realities of a narrow-minded nation. It is not an incident that should spark temporary public outrage and then be forgotten, like countless incidents in the past. It is a call to finally take action against walking around the issue and giving out nominal, case-by-case punishment to individuals who have been embedded in a cultural stigma that they are not entirely responsible for. It is a plea to grasp this stigma at its roots, and reform our laws, mindsets and societies so that we will not allow further cases of this tragedy to be disregarded in fear of taking nationwide proactive measures.

Issue 05, Submitted 2010-10-06 03:04:05