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Online Ethos

posted: 3.22.12 by Donna Winchell

217373332_54323d6ffc_mAny student who uses social networking media should sit up and take notice of the trial of Rutgers student Dharun Ravi, especially any student–or anyone else–who has ever posted online pictures of someone without that person’s permission. Ravi’s trial ended last week when he was found guilty on the charge of violating his roommate’s privacy and on at least one count of bias intimidation. The case has been widely publicized. Ravi secretly used a Web cam to record his roommate Tyler Clementi’s sexual encounter with an older man in their dorm room and shared it via social media with others.

Clementi’s sexual orientation was known to his family and close friends, but after Ravi’s Webcam video put it on display before a larger audience, he went into New York City and committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge. Ravi was not charged with causing Clementi’s death, but had Clementi not resorted to suicide, the case might never have made it to court. It was the trial balloon for a recent New Jersey law that doubles the sentence if the violation of privacy is found to be motivated by hate. It could double Ravi’s sentence from five to ten years.

Writing for the New York Times, Richard Pérez-Peña explains, “The case illustrates the ways the fields of hate crime and cyber-crime prosecution are expanding. Until the 1990s, few states had such laws, which increase the penalties for acts motivated by dislike of a particular group. And the earlier laws generally did not include bias based on sexual orientation, which was added later in many states. Laws against online harassment are even newer.”

Obviously, motivation is harder to prove than the act of posting images of a person taken without his or her knowledge. The fact that the images were posted, though, raises questions about who has the right to define one’s online presence. The Ravi jury seemed to have no difficulty in determining that to share online someone’s intimate sexual activities was a violation of privacy. Just where is the line, though? What about those pictures of your roommate sleeping, or the time he pulled a prank on you and caught the moment on video? Does the video have to show sexual activity for its posting to be a violation of privacy? Is it okay as long as it is done in fun? What about when it stops being fun? It’s like the tattoo of your girlfriend’s name that becomes embarrassing once you are dating another girl―it’s hard to get rid of.

Students should be aware that their online presence may be available to more than their close friends. Before applying for jobs, they should check to see if the photos from that drunken weekend in Daytona or the ones flashing obscene gestures are still out there for a prospective boss to find. Some people choose to make two separate Facebook pages, a personal and a professional one. Studies show, though, that if that personal one is still up, a person considering you for a job is likely to check it out.

In times past, a speaker had to establish his persona in person. Now the image of our person persona can travel around the world instantly. And cameras are everywhere. Band members from the University of Southern Mississippi got caught on camera yelling,“Where’s your green card?”at a Latino player during the recent NCAA tournament. The band didn’t plan to make the national news, but they did.

Maybe we are at the mercy of our technology. Maybe we are the only ones who know if we acted out of hatred―or stupidity. But the fate of Dharun Ravi and the even more tragic fate of Tyler Clementi remind us that we can be held accountable for what we publish to the world.

[Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mike-burns/217373332/]


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