Rutgers Student’s Suicide Prompts Privacy, Cyber-Bullying Debates

October 1, 2010 at 4:25 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The death of a college student is sparking questions about harassment and the boundaries of online privacy. Ray Suarez begins our story with some background.

RAY SUAREZ: Students at Rutgers University are mourning the loss of a classmate who committed suicide just over a week ago and whose death has triggered a larger conversation about protecting privacy in the digital age.

BRIDGETTE WAMAKIMA, Rutgers University Student: In order to prevent, just put stricter, like, rules and enforcements for them and to just ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

RAY SUAREZ: On Wednesday night, students gathered to remember 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a freshman and talented violinist.

On September 22, Clementi jumped to his death from New York’s George Washington Bridge. It came just three days after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, and classmate Molly Wei first allegedly broadcast Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man, secretly, live over the Internet.

Ravi then sent a message on Twitter: “Roommate asked for the room until midnight. I went into Molly’s room and turned on my Webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

Two days later, Ravi attempted spying a second time, but, this time, Clementi shut off the computer. The next day, Clementi posted this status on his Facebook: “Jumping off the G.W. Bridge, sorry.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called it an unspeakable tragedy.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-N.J.), New Jersey: And those people who helped to lead him to that bridge are going to have to bear that responsibility for the rest of their lives.

RAY SUAREZ: The investigation into what happened inside this Rutgers dorm is now quickly shifting to questions about why it happened. Clementi’s death has and fueled the debate over privacy and cyber-bullying.

DR. JEFF LIEBERMAN, department of psychiatry chairman, Columbia University: The tools of the Internet enabled this cruel or sadistic behavior to be amplified and publicized, not just on the campus, but throughout the world. And that really contributed to the extreme emotional reaction that the student had and his impulsive decision to take his life.

RAY SUAREZ: It has also spurred gay-rights activists, who say Clementi’s online outing was a hate crime.

STEVEN GOLDSTEIN, Garden State Equality: You have to prosecute this as a hate crime. Anything less would be an insult to the memory of the young man our society lost.

RAY SUAREZ: Ravi and Wei have been charged with invasion of privacy, but prosecutors are currently considering filing more severe charges under New Jersey’s bias crimes law. This week, Rutgers launched a new initiative, Project Civility, designed to get students thinking about how they treat others.