>A recent string of gay teen suicides, brought to light by Tyler Clementi's leap off the George Washington bridge, is creating a "teachable moment" for gay rights activists, today's Washington Post declares. I hope they're right, and the tragic deaths of Clementi and others will help de-legitimize discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity (discrimination never really ends, but laws and social mores can greatly reduce its incidence). But I worry about the lessons being drawn and not drawn from this "moment" -- the tendency is to equate inequality with incivility, by characterizing Clementi as a victim of bullying, and the relatively scant attention being paid to contempt for his privacy. "The problem with (the video posting that preceded Clementi's suicide) was not that it was hurtful, but rather that it was a crime" -- a crime against privacy -- as my friend Harvey Silverglate has stressed. If the video had been posted not to mock him, out of indiscriminate meanness or anti-gay bias, but, with good (if profoundly stupid) intentions to help advance acceptance of homosexuality, it would still be a gross and apparently criminal violation of privacy.
So no thanks to New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg for promising to introduce federal legislation requiring colleges and universities to enact anti-harassment policies. And hold the applause for Rutgers University's recently launched civility initiative, heralded by the university president in his response to Clementi's suicide. Considering the long and dismal record of sensitivity training and anti-harassment initiatives on campuses nationwide, I suspect that the Rutgers's program will be a lot less successful in nurturing civility than teaching disrespect for freedom of speech -- without enhancing regard for privacy. Indeed, the speech and harassment codes enacted to spread civility generally diminish privacy by diminishing freedom of conscience and belief.