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Student’s Death Sparks Questions on Privacy in the Digital Age

October 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez gets two perspectives on the many questions raised by a Rutgers University student's suicide three days after his roommate and another person allegedly broadcast his sexual encounter with another man secretly on the Internet.
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RAY SUAREZ: We get two perspectives now on some of the questions and concerns that are being discussed as a result of this case. William Saletan has been writing about the privacy issues for “Slate” magazine. And Shane Windmeyer works on gay, lesbian and transgender rights at colleges and universities. He is the founder and executive director of Campus Pride and joins us from Charlotte.

And, Shane, given what you know now — and there are still facts coming out about this case — what do you make of it?

SHANE WINDMEYER, founder, Campus Pride: You know, our organization, Campus Pride, is very disturbed by the rash of teenage gay suicides that have happened over the last three weeks, including the one at Johnson & Wales just this past Wednesday. That brings it up to five gay suicides that have happened.

And, so, we’re — we’re deeply disturbed. And — and, ultimately, our goal is that colleges and universities across the country take action and use these deaths as an opportunity to really create a safer learning environment for — for all students.

RAY SUAREZ: William, you wrote about this for this morning’s Slate.com. What have you been concluding?

WILLIAM SALETAN, national correspondent, “Slate”: Well, I’m really struck by the convergence of an old weakness of our nature, which is to exploit — you know, students take advantage of each other. They often humiliate each other. They play pranks.

But that is now magnified by the technology and the ability of a student to get easy access to someone in a position of, you know, being naked or in an awkward position, and — and to have that image broadcast more easily from one computer to another.

So, it’s the technology that is making it easier for students to play pranks at a very — at, in this case, a lethal expense.

RAY SUAREZ: The two suspects are being charged under a class four felony statute that is roughly akin to being a Peeping Tom. You use the word prank. Is this a prank or a crime?

WILLIAM SALETAN: Well, I think it is a mistake to approach this case from the standpoint that it is a terrible, pathological thing that was done here, and that we need to focus on punishing this particular student.

I think what is scary to me about this case is how easy it was, and how, if you look at the case, how the young man, Mr. Ravi, was drawn into it, where he first goes to another room, and the Webcam is not turned toward his roommate. But then he realizes that he can do this, and then, gradually, the mischief starts to build.

It is the temptation that the technology poses that draws him in. And I think he didn’t understand how serious what he was doing was. And a lot of students don’t. And that is what we need to focus on, spreading the message about what is acceptable and what is not.

RAY SUAREZ: Shane Windmeyer, what do you think? Is this a crime, or, as some are saying, a hate crime?

SHANE WINDMEYER: Well, I do think that there’s reason to look at a bias-motivated crime here.

I do think it’s much more severe than a prank or just an incident that has occurred. The fact that this young man who perpetrated this act is a heterosexual, privileged male and that he didn’t understand the repercussion of what he did doesn’t condone it.

Our national report that Campus Pride released last week actually shows that a quarter of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students actually experience harassment and discrimination on their college campuses across the United States.

And, so, this is a larger issue, not only for Rutgers University, but for all college and universities, to really wake up and understand, we have a long way to go in creating these safe learning environments for our students.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Shane, is there more help on campus today than there was when you were a student, when I was a student, for people who are feeling despairing, gay or straight or anyone who feels they may be at risk for suicide?

SHANE WINDMEYER: Well, you know, the suicide is the ultimate last choice for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth after a long period of harassment, bullying throughout their life.

And I — I don’t know Tyler. I don’t know his family. But, in not — in not understanding really the issue here, college campuses, you know, only about 7 percent of them actually have institutional support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

And it’s 2010. Thirteen percent of them actually have sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination statement. So, yes, we have made progress over the last 20 years, since I have been in college, but the fact that there’s been five teenage youth suicides that are gay young men is cause for alarm.

RAY SUAREZ: William, does the idea of what constitutes abuse, what constitutes harassment have to broaden, have to change to reflect the possibilities of this technology?

WILLIAM SALETAN: Yes, I think it does. I think it does. It’s very important to understand — when I was researching this, I looked went back and looked. There was a case that happened in Oregon State University nine years ago, a very similar case, roommate using a laptop and making an image of his roommate having sex.

And he said — after he was caught and prosecuted, he said, “I didn’t understand that this was wrong.” Now, that was nine years ago. Here we are, again, a decade later, and the message has still not gotten out.

And I think that the problem is that now we have many more students who have laptops. The laptops have Webcams. The Webcams in many cases are built in. They are not conspicuous. It is very easy to just turn it on, as this young man did, to remotely activate it now, if you have a video chat or Skype or something like.

And it has just made it so much more — so much easier to do that. And we have not educated these kids to handle the responsibility of the additional power they have, in this case, power to do damage.

RAY SUAREZ: Ah. Ah. Well, there you are. You are talking about how the machines are becoming easier to use.

WILLIAM SALETAN: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: But isn’t something also changing about young people themselves? They talk about where they are. They tell everyone.

WILLIAM SALETAN: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: They take pictures of it, send the pictures to everyone on their lists. I mean, it got to the point where Tyler went on Facebook to change his status and send, in effect, a digital suicide note.

WILLIAM SALETAN: Oh, and, supposedly, he took the computer with him to the bridge. He took the cell phone and the computer. He is announcing his death on there.

He also — you know, there — there — apparently, he had an online profile at a Webchat, a Web site where you go, and you — it is a heavily sexual site, but it is consensual, OK? So he is used to that technology.

What he is not used to is the notion of non-consensual, someone taking an image of you and broadcasting it without your consent. And it is a very simple rule. But the students have not gotten the message.

I think it would be great if we came out of this with something we could call the Rutgers rules, which is where — teach the students where you have an expectation of privacy, for example, in your dorm room, and the cardinal rule of consent. It is OK to broadcast something — you can exchange information consensually, but not without the consent of the person who is being videotaped.

RAY SUAREZ: Shane Windmeyer, can you do that? Can you take an act that is essentially unprivate — that is, leaving your family home and moving on to a college campus, eating with other people, having a roommate — and build in some boundaries for privacy, for protection, to be safe?

SHANE WINDMEYER: Well, I do think, for young people today, privacy is an issue that they’re encountering and stumbling in many ways, as has been noted.

You know, Facebook has an impact on the victims as well of this incident. You know, the suicide that happened has not only impacted Rutgers, but has impacted colleges across the country and young people across the country.

And we see that as a result of Facebook and Twitter. But let us not forget that Tyler also reported this incident to his resident assistant, according to some of the news reports. And I have still yet to hear what happened with that incident report to his resident assistant, which is — is very disturbing, when we think about a student trying to outreach to get maybe support or direction from someone who is supposed to be there for him.

RAY SUAREZ: Shane Windmeyer, William Saletan, thank you, both.

WILLIAM SALETAN: Thank you.

SHANE WINDMEYER: Thank you.