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Published: Friday, 10/8/2010

Death by Internet

IN A moment of unbearable anguish last month, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman and gifted violinist, leaped from the George Washington Bridge in New York City. His body was found in the Hudson River.

Mr. Clementi was despondent after his sexual encounter with another male in his dormitory room had been streamed live on the Internet. Police say Dharum Ravi, Mr. Clementi's roommate, used a remote camera to monitor the encounter surreptitiously, then put it online.

Mr. Ravi's friend, Molly Wei, allegedly allowed him to use her room on the Piscataway, N.J., campus while they spied on Mr. Clementi. Whether they intended the act as a cruel prank or an expression of personal animus toward a gay man, the result was tragic.

Now there is a national debate over how harshly the law should deal with Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei. They were arrested and charged with two counts each of invading Mr. Clementi's privacy. Since Mr. Ravi tried to put Mr. Clementi's sex life online a second time, the day before the suicide, he was charged with two more counts of invasion of privacy.

In New Jersey, it's a crime to transmit or view images that depict nudity or sexual contact with an individual without the person's consent. Transmitting such images is a third-degree crime with a prison sentence of as much as five years.

Authorities also are weighing whether the students' actions rise to the level of a hate crime. That would require showing that the defendants acted because they believed Mr. Clementi was gay.

It's doubtful that Mr. Ravi or Ms. Wei could have known that Mr. Clementi would kill himself as a result of their cyber-bullying. But they had to realize it would cause him mental distress. How could it not?

The Internet is a neutral tool that can be used for good or ill. But in this case, the technology's wide reach, its unnoticed presence in the dorm, and the anonymity it provided the perpetrators were a lethal combination.

Based on the charges against them, Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei show that ordinary people are capable of astounding cruelty if they think they can get away with it. Prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law will signal that invading anyone's privacy, through the Internet or other means, will not be tolerated.

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