Collegiate Prank Leads To Suicide

Three lives intersected last week at Rutgers University, but one person didn't make it out alive.

There’s really no other way to describe this story except as tragic:

It started with a Twitter message on Sept. 19: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

That night, the authorities say, the Rutgers University student who sent the message used a camera hidden in his dormitory room to broadcast the roommate’s intimate encounter live on the Internet.

And three days later, the roommate who had been surreptitiously filmed — Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman and an accomplished violist — jumped from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River in an apparent suicide.

The Sept. 22 death, which the authorities disclosed on Wednesday, was the latest by a young American that followed the online posting of hurtful material. The news came on the same day that Rutgers kicked off a two-year, campuswide project to teach the importance of civility, with special attention to bullying and the use and abuse of new technology.

Those who knew Mr. Clementi — on the Rutgers campus in Piscataway, N.J., at his North Jersey high school and in a community orchestra — were anguished by the circumstances surrounding his death, describing him as intensely devoted musician who was sweet and shy.

“It’s really awful, especially in New York and in the 21st century,” said Arkady Leytush, artistic director of the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra, where Mr. Clementi played since his freshman year in high school. “It’s so painful. He was very friendly and had very good potential.”

The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office said that Mr. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro, N.J., and another classmate, Molly Wei, 18, of Plainsboro, N.J., had each been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy for using “the camera to view and transmit a live image” of Mr. Clementi. The most severe charges carry a maximum sentence of five years in jail.

Mr. Ravi was charged with two additional counts of invasion of privacy for attempting a similar live feed on the Internet on Sept. 21, the day before the suicide. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, James O’Neill, said the investigation was continuing, but he declined to “speculate on additional charges.”

Clementi left no suicide note, although, in a bizarre twist on a story that started out with too much of his life being revealed on the internet, he did leave a message on Facebook:

A Rutgers University freshman posted a goodbye message on his Facebook page before jumping to his death after his roommate secretly filmed him during a “sexual encounter” in his dorm room and posted it live on the Internet.

Items belonging to 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi were found by the George Washington Bridge last week, according to authorities. Clementi’s freshman ID card and driver’s license were in the wallet.

Clementi’s post on his Facebook page, dated Sept. 22 at 8:42 p.m. read, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

There really isn’t any big take away from this story, other than the overall sadness of the story. I’m sure in the days to come people will wonder if the two students who pulled this prank either can or should be held legally responsible for the course of events that their actions set into motion. Quite honestly, I’m not sure that there’s a law out there that would even cover something like this, although I’m sure that prosecutors in New Jersey will look for one. There will also be discussions, no doubt, about potential liability on the Universities part, although I can’t imagine how the school could be held responsible unless they knew what was going on.

No, the only take away from a story like this is to wonder how two seemingly normal, well-education kids from a middle-class community in New Jersey could do something so incredibly mean spirited and stupid.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Trumwill says:

    Back when I was in college, my roommate and I essentially blackmailed a very closeted kid into doing a pretty significant favor for us. Neither of us had a problem with homosexuality (finding out about his dilemma actually made us more sympathetic to the guy – whom we otherwise loathed) and we were never going to tell anyone, but I’m still not proud of what we did and I shudder to think what the response might have been had he responded differently.

    Sad stuff.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Not illegal, probably evil, but with the wrongdoers probably doing far more damage than they ever intended. Sometimes reality demands a level of subtlety which the law cannot hope to deliver.

  3. anjin-san says:

    > There really isn’t any big take away from this story

    Of course there is. Respect other people’s privacy. Respect their right to be who they are…

  4. Brett says:

    That was a pretty douchebag thing to do on their part, particularly if he had some reason to conceal his homosexuality (like family).

  5. Franklin says:

    Well, the victim’s family got a double whammy, since that’s probably who he was hiding from. Hopefully they’ll think twice about the root cause was here.

  6. Maggie Mama says:

    Time for classes in “Ethics and Morals in the New Media Age” to be taught starting in middle school and continuing through higher ed.

  7. mike says:

    what a bunch of scumbags. Hopefully they can do some jail time and learn how invasion of privacy can hurt.

  8. John Burgess says:

    It looks to me as though the prosecutor is charging what he can charge, not making up some new crime that ought to be on the books. Most states do have laws that proscribe surreptitious recording when there is an expectation of privacy. That the two kids’ actions led to a suicide could probably be seen as aggravating factors when it comes to sentencing.

    I sure wouldn’t complain about classes in social media responsibility. Maybe it could replace one of the kumbaya classes rather than be shunted off to the PE coach.

  9. Evil.

    There’s evil in the world, and posting the guy’s private moments served.

  10. TG Chicago says:

    For an ironic twist, consider another punishment these two students will face. When a future potential employer wants to find out more about them, they will likely Google their names. And then they’ll learn about their involvement in this story.

  11. john personna says:

    I’d guess that the villains in this piece didn’t think the privacy was expected or that the homosexuality (if that’s what it was) was a big deal.

    Tragic, but I wonder if old people reading this story have a clue about privacy the expectations of 18 year olds today. We were not raised on reality shows. We didn’t survive high school plus facebook.

    I mean, hell, for conflicted views how many think we should all be posting here with our real names?

    I’ll refer to you to ‘Pre-crime’ Comes to the HR Dept.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Sometimes reality demands a level of subtlety which the law cannot hope to deliver.”

    It does indeed. Terrible little story. The problem is you can’t outlaw kids doing stupid things, it’s a fact of life like birth and death.

  13. Fausta says:

    I hope they charge them with murder.

  14. Grant says:

    I didn’t get the impression that this was a prank. More like “how can we get back at our roommate for making us disgusted.”

  15. Mrs. Crankipants says:

    For the folks who say that gays need to stay in the closet and not flaunt their lifestyle in public- Tyler Clementi did just that, and now he’s being fished out of a river. Is civility dead?

  16. Rick Almeida says:

    “It looks to me as though the prosecutor is charging what he can charge, not making up some new crime that ought to be on the books. Most states do have laws that proscribe surreptitious recording when there is an expectation of privacy. That the two kids’ actions led to a suicide could probably be seen as aggravating factors when it comes to sentencing.”

    The re-broadcast of the illegally taped material probably doesn’t rise to the level of reckless disregard for the life of the victim, but perhaps a case could be made for ciminal negligence.