Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi killed himself last week after discovering that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had secretly broadcast a Webcam video showing him having sex with another man in their dorm room.
Ravi and another student face minor charges, but amid the public outrage and ongoing investigation some gay rights activists are calling Ravi's actions a hate crime. Steven Goldstein, a spokesman for the group Garden State Equality, issued a statement saying that his group considers Clementi's death a hate crime. Goldstein, advice columnist Dan Savage, and others in the news media have suggested that Clementi's death is connected to homosexuality and therefore might be motivated by hate.
In fact there is little or no chance that anyone will be charged with a hate crime or any other serious crime in Clementi's suicide. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that Clementi killed himself over anti-gay bullying or harassment, but there is no evidence that Clementi was bullied or abused because of his sexuality. The practice of secretly videotaping people having sex — homosexual or heterosexual — is hardly unheard of, and Ravi's motivation is unknown.
It seems more likely to have been a prank or bit of voyeurism than an attempt to harm Clementi or cause his suicide. Ravi had known that Clementi was gay for at least a month, and there is no evidence of any harassment or abuse, much less hate. In fact the day before his death Celementi described Ravi as "a pretty decent roommate."
The complete motivation behind Clementi's suicide, like all suicides, may remain unknown. It does not logically follow that the mere fact that Clementi was gay (if indeed he was) means he killed himself over it. It may be that the embarrassment and personal violation was enough to induce a depression resulting in suicide. There are many cases of heterosexual teens who have killed themselves following embarrassing sexual revelations. One of the best-known involves Jessica Logan, an 18-year-old who sent nude pictures of herself to a boyfriend, who then forwarded them to other high school girls. The catty girls called her rude names and harassed her; she grew depressed and began skipping school. Logan later killed herself in her bedroom, and her parents tried unsuccessfully to sue the school for contributing to her suicide.
It's also possible that Clementi had a history of depression or suicidal thoughts — phenomena that are unfortunately not uncommon among teenagers, both gay and straight. The fact that Clementi killed himself several days after the video was broadcast also badly weakens a prosecutor's case for implicating Ravi. Absent a clear and immediate link between Ravi's actions and Clementi's death, a prosecution is all but impossible. Suicide, by definition, is a voluntary act, and the decision to pull a gun's trigger or jump off a bridge is ultimately a personal choice.
In some cases the law does hold people responsible for actions that indirectly result in accidents or deaths. For example, many states can hold bars and restaurants responsible for serving drunk drivers, where there is a reasonable expectation that an action will result in harm. But broadcasting a dorm roommate's sexual escapades will likely result in only minor criminal charges.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.