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Semiformalishmaybe

Styx and Stains

I was recently saddened to read about the suicide of a Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi. I don't think suicide is always an unqualifiedly bad or sad thing, but it often (and in this case) is the result of something tragic. In this case, it's due to a definite impropriety - his roomate broadcast a (webcam) video of him having sex with another guy (the webcam was hidden, activated from elsewhere, and streamed onto a video sharing site). After finding out, he made a goodbye post to a few friends on Facebook and jumped off a bridge, ending his 18 years of life.

The law touches a bit on this - in New Jersey, it's criminal to record someone else's sexual activities without their knowledge/consent. Is that enough? I think existing laws are dancing around a big issue that our system does not handle well - harassment. We have a "sticks and stones" slogan that's a cornerstone of modern western morality - by and large our legal systems permit us to be very cruel to each other in a variety of ways with only limited exceptions - we do this because open criticsm and relatively free speech are part of political liberties (and that generally bleeds over into nonpolitical matters because otherwise we'd need to take on the tough task of defining what is political), which is good as a step against corruption, allows our political systems to be more nimble, and provides a few other benefits. The idea of carving out exceptions as needed to the general rule of free speech is reasonable given how much we prize it, but it has issues when we recognise there to be a problem but have trouble drawing the lines as to what is appropriate. From another direction, what should the responsibilities of a person be in managing their emotional state and their life in the face of others who threaten their emotional well-being? Are existing laws (e.g. harassment, libel/slander, etc) sufficient, and do their punishments line up well with their more physical counterparts in terms of the harm the actions against which they strive would bring to some "reasonable and normally healthy person" in society?

A few years ago, there was a case where someone (in case the above link breaks, Megan Meier was the victim) took on a false identity and became an internet friend to a child, and then at some point began to relentlessly chip away at their self-esteem until they suicided. No laws were broken, the behaviour goes well beyond "uncool", but it's very difficult to carve an exception to our general freedom of speech that fits our intuitions but doesn't do a number of things it shouldn't do. Moreso, because this is an area which is intimate with human behaviour (as opposed to regulatory laws), it's a nuanced matter of which the public must be aware (so the more "laws-should-be-formal" types will know to be wary).

The relative youth of those involved is, I think, a red herring. Children may be more vulnerable (sometimes) to this in that most adults build a social circle that helps insulate them against difficult times in life, but (I speak from personal experience) not all of them have this kind of support all of the time and when it is missing, a moderate downturn (or even a seasonal depression) can become very serious.

Is the bedrock of our notions of free speech faulty? (at the very least, it has costs which are difficult at times to stomach) Are there principled and reasonable ways to carve out exemptions to free speech on topics like these that don't impact excessively our other notions of free speech? To what degree should we expect people to be responsible for their mental health given people working against it (either as an explicit cause to wound or as a side effect of other priorities)? Are matters like these necessarily too complex/fuzzy for law to deal with them, and if so are there other ways to address this?

(I think this story hits me a bit harder than most because, minus any harassment, I had experiences messing around with another guy in the dorms back in university, and I imagine being outed as bi back then would have been pretty traumatic (probably should be allowable to out someone, as much of a schmuck move that is) while being video'd would've been a mental house of horrors. I don't know how I would've reacted)

Comments

this is a good question. it pisses me off to see that free speech is still such a big issue - that advocates of a basically Very Good Idea do it harm with the "allow people to be idiots" attitude.

i know it's the lame "making excuses" argument, but i think the fact that it still hasn't been solved is a sign that there's no way to express solutions in legalese.

"This court of law has found you to be a total jackass, and sentences you to twenty years in prison."