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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Sexuality, Technology and Student Life
October 1, 2010 - 8:54am

How is the young man who was in the room with Mr. Clementi doing? Thankfully, for him, we don't know his name, nor am I curious. Only concerned. If Mr. Clementi felt profoundly rattled by events, one can only imagine how he feels. The media, having gotten ahold of this story, has expanded the scope and amplification of the private act between him and Mr. Clementi many orders of magnitude beyond the original publication on the Internet.

Scope and amplification are the reasons we revisit concepts of privacy originally prompted by technology and now transformed by this particular phenomenon of the Internet.

Photography is what motivated Brandeis and Warren to write their famous law review article in which they set the legal stage for four civil actions related to a "right of privacy," invasion of privacy being the most prominent today.

There are violations of privacy and violations of privacy. A man gossiping about his roommate's sexuality is nothing new. Yet it is still a violation of privacy. Surreptitiously pointing cameras operated by remote control on sexual activity and then posting that activity on the Internet is another matter. Does anyone disagree that it is a violation of privacy?

Does American society need an "Internet fraud" law? Like mail fraud, federal law that creates a separate violation for a criminal act propagated via postal mail, Internet fraud would make use of the Internet to perpetrate any criminal act its own separate transgression. Given scope and amplification, it is a concept at least worth discussing. We need more of what we apparently do not have: education about the appropriate use of technology beginning in the earliest grades, and laws in some cases that drive the point home.

It is perhaps also time to end the fallacy that youth neither have nor value privacy. That notion has been unthoughtful from the start, an adult's knee-jerk reaction. No more phone booths for Superman. The personal has indeed been made public as we signal arms over our head "TMI" in airports, buses and restrooms. But just try to grab your teenage son or daughter's cell phone from them and watch the reaction. Moreover, adolescence psychologists view the teenage years as a well-established developmental stage from childhood to adulthood. It is marked by the requirement that teenagers have secrets, physical and emotional space away from the roving eye of parents or even older siblings, in order for them to try out their identities without the gaze or constant comment of Mom and Dad.

Mr. Clementi's roommate violated that space. It would be wrong if it were an older brother in the family home with a video camera not posted. It is most certainly wrong -- legally and ethically -- to have done more, even to a complete stranger, which is who Mr. Clementi was to the roommate until only a few weeks ago when they were assigned together in a residence hall. Should a higher standard of care arise for roommates? Yes, because strangers in the most intimate of spaces, a bedroom, deserve privacy.

Reflecting back on my undergraduate experience, I can only say I was one of the lucky ones. My first roommate and I were never good friends. I cannot now even remember her name. But far more important than remembering her name is the fact that she never harassed me when I went down the hall to spend time with a woman whom I suspected might, like me, be attracted to women. I was not surveilled or photographed. If she gossiped about me, I never knew. The next year I became a resident adviser intentionally so that I could have my own room, but now with responsibilities. I would not have dreamed of bringing another woman into my room for fear of the perception of the label of being a lesbian.

By the next year I was over it. When some of the student leaders visited me in an apartment I garnered as an area adviser my junior year to ask me to run for student government my immediate response was, "Who is going to elect a lesbian?" They told me to never mind about that issue. I was the President of the Student Association at the University of Rochester academic year 1980-1981.

By then I was 21 years old. Three years from 18 and with enough time to have dated both men and women and to have considered my options. I thought then as I do now that if pressed to adopt a label bisexual would do, but I had the time and space to work it out for myself sufficient to the transverse from shame and confusion to at least a fledgling, if sometimes defensive, confidence about who I was.

In short, I had the privacy I needed to make that transition. And to this day I am very grateful for the opportunity to have gone to college to make that journey. It is no small piece of why I shortly thereafter decided to devote my career to higher education. College gave me to myself.

I am a mother. I have two sons. No parent wants their child to become a name or image on a poster. Still, if we who grieve with this family do not take the lessons from it we will all be the poorer and our children potential future victims. This case has renewed an understanding of the challenges that youth face in college, gay or straight, but especially gay. This case revives a conversation about the appropriate use of technology, especially communication technologies such as the Internet. And this case should remind us of what a right and privilege college is to each new generation for what is learned both in and outside of the classroom.

In every sense: physically, emotionally and intellectually, it is imperative to our children and to the kind of society that every day we aspire to achieve that the collegiate environment remain safe.


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