Inquirer Editorial: Cyber tragedy

College prank or harassment?

The indictment of a former Rutgers University student accused of a criminal act that led to his roommate's suicide should lead to an answer to that question.

But it won't return to life Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old who on Sept. 19 plunged to his death from the George Washington Bridge, apparently despondent because a webcam was used to spy on him during a homosexual encounter.

A Middlesex County grand jury on Wednesday returned a 15-count indictment against Dharun Ravi, 19, of Plainsboro, accusing him of bias intimidation and other charges.

Ravi and a friend, Molly Wei, 19, of West Windsor, were originally charged only with invasion of privacy. Prosecutors said additional charges against Wei were being considered.

Ravi was Clementi's roommate. He allegedly set up the camera, then remotely turned it on from Wei's room. He then tweeted, "I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

A post made later from a computer at Rutgers to a website for gay men is believed to have been made by Clementi. It said "he . . . turned on his webcam and saw me making out with a guy."

A second unsuccessful attempt to catch Clementi on a webcam was apparently made two days later. After that, Clementi reportedly posted on his Facebook page: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."

The tragedy has motivated action in both Washington and Trenton to pass tougher anti-bullying laws. Gay-rights groups are pushing for more safeguards against harassment of homosexuals. Privacy rights in the Internet age have become a hot topic.

Meanwhile, all the teenager's parents are asking for is justice - and the truth that should lead to that outcome. Their attorneys said the Clementis aren't seeking a "harsh punishment" but want to "establish that Tyler was subject to criminal acts, not merely a college prank."

Whatever the motivation of the two teenagers accused of spying on Clementi, the act was intolerable. Their friends say they aren't homophobes, but that doesn't excuse their alleged act.

The tragedy that resulted, however, has the potential to produce something positive - not necessarily in the courtroom, but at Rutgers and other schools that are reassessing how they respond to harassment complaints by gay and other students.

Cyberbullying, in particular, is getting more of the focus it deserves. The Stomp Out Bullying website (www.stompoutbullying.org) notes that 97 percent of middle schoolers and 47 percent of young adults, ages 18 to 24, say they have been bullied online.

More telling, 53 percent of children admit saying something mean or hurtful to another person online. That's the environment that produces college freshmen who think nothing of using a webcam to embarrass someone whose emotions they obviously couldn't care less about.