Privacy & Security

Clementi Webcam Case Resolution a Teachable Moment?

By Ian Quillen — March 19, 2012 2 min read
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Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student who used a webcam to spy on the romantic encounter of gay roommate Tyler Clementi, days before the 18-year-old Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge to commit suicide, was found guilty of all 15 charges against him Friday, including invasion of privacy and anti-gay intimidation, according to a story from the Associated Press.

But the question for those who are pushing digital literacy education may be whether the fallout from the case—including the severity of Ravi’s pending sentence—sparks more schools to implement digital literacy training to help students understand the consequences of what they may see as harmless behavior.

Digital literacy education advocates often insist digital natives are not always digitally literate. For example, students’ ability to navigate social networks doesn’t necessarily mean they understand the real-life social and emotional harm that can come from digitally-based actions.

It’s impossible to read Ravi’s mind and know whether he understood the potential emotional damage his actions could cause. But it’s probably safe to say the 20-year-old never expected Clementi to kill himself, nor to be facing prison time because of it.

(Ravi set up a webcam in his dorm room to spy on one of Clementi’s dates, and used Twitter to publicize the live feed to friends. His spying became public only after Clementi’s suicide. Prosecutors mentioned the suicide to jurors, but did not argue that Ravi’s spying led directly to his death, the Associated Press reports.)

There is some indication that people believe the tragedy will serve as a cautionary tale, at least to individuals who are following it.

From the Associated Press story:

[Students] don't feel like they're spying. It's just their own iPhone they're using, their own laptop," said Annemarie McAvoy, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School in New York. "Hopefully, parents will use this as an example for their children."
On the Rutgers campus, student Melvin Ways said: "I think the lesson here is not everything is meant to be publicized to the entire world, especially private matters and things that are personal to people."

So far, though, the most publicized institutional reaction appears to involve measures outside digital literacy education.

Rutgers, the Associated Press reports, changed its housing policies to allow members of the opposite sex to live together in dorm rooms in an option thought to appeal to some members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered student community.

Meanwhile, the state of New Jersey passed an anti-bullying law that mandates student and teacher training on the practice of bullying across the state’s public school systems, but most media reports about the law don’t specifically address digital literacy training, whether or not it is theoretically covered in training about cyberbullying.

We’ll see if Ravi’s sentence, which experts tell the Associated Press could range from probation to up to 10 years in prison, and could also include possible deportation for the Indian-born 20-year-old, causes more educators and institutions to take up the issue in fear of students acting immaturely—but not maliciously—inflicting similar harm.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.