The tragic case of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi is a chilling new manifestation of the age-old problem of demeaning those we perceive as being different from us. Only instead of being subjected to name-calling and perhaps a bully’s fists in the schoolyard, nowadays a victim’s most private and vulnerable moments can be surreptitiously broadcast worldwide like the Truman Show.
While law enforcement officials and bloggers debate whether the acts of Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and his accomplice, Molly Wei, constitute hate crimes, it is beyond dispute that the pair can be held liable in a civil courtroom for invading Clementi’s privacy. Common law privacy cases allow a victim to recover monetary damages from the defendant, including punitive damages, in four general categories: (1) appropriation of one’s name or likeness, (2) intrusion upon seclusion, (3) publication of private affairs, and (4) portraying an individual in a “false light.” The only defense in a privacy case is the individual’s consent.
Clearly, the despicable actions of Ravi and Wei intruded upon Tyler Clementi’s seclusion and publicly broadcast his private affairs without his consent. An attorney for the family could resolve the issue of liability on a motion for summary judgment. Then the only question for a jury would be how much the pair would have to pay. That these defendants are two immature college students who probably have few assets to their names should not prevent a jury from sending a loud message and forcing them to work a good part of their adult lives to pay off the judgment. Until those using social networking media and the technology that enables them to do so understand there is a heavy cost to invading others’ privacy for laughs, there will be more cases like Tyler’s to come.