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Andrea Lyon Headshot

Not Everything Is Our Business

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The suicide of Tyler Clemente, the young Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after a sexual encounter with another man was broadcast online,
has sparked a lot of talk -- about pressures on young gay people, and bullying (see here) and the need for support and tolerance. Some have spoken about the intense hate-filled rhetoric from some religious and political leaders (often ironically those same leaders are involved in the very activity they claim to abhor like the accused Eddie Long or Congressman Foley). Those who write about this decry the ramping up of hatred. I couldn't agree more.

But that is not what I am writing about today, as sad as Mr. Clemente's death makes me as a human being (and as an alumni of Rutgers University). What we need to talk about is the ubiquitous invasion of our private lives -- by law enforcement, the media and each other. Since when is it okay to secretly tape private behavior and broadcast it? There are many who see nothing wrong in having cameras everywhere -- better more cameras than crime, they say -- although cameras on "drug blocks" in Chicago have not deterred criminal activity -- drug dealers see the cameras as just a fact of life. Someone is taping pretty much everything it seems.

I am not sociologist, but I know that we have as a species we have an endless fascination with gossip, innuendo and scandal. And our youth are comfortable with electronic communication to the point (as Jay Leno pointed out in a recent monologue) that the push to get a driver's license as soon as possible -- once one of the most predictable rites of passage among young people -- has dropped off. As a law professor running a legal clinic, I find I have to explain to my students that e-mail is not private, and that they cannot communicate about privileged client matters in that way. I am amazed at what people feel it is fine to "post" on FaceBook and other sites about their personal lives, and then their dismay when a potential employer disqualifies them from a job on that basis. And I certainly know the effects of the never ending need to feed the 24 hour news cycle and the nightmare that it can cause someone accused of a crime. Presumed innocent? Not if you are in the news.

Our conversations should not be recorded on the whim of law enforcement -- since courts have held that anyone on a cell phone should just "know" that there is no "reasonable expectation of privacy" on a cell phone and thus there is no need for probable cause to listen in. (See for example Tyler v. Berodt 877 F.2d at 705). A landline requires a warrant and a finding of probable cause by a judge, a cordless or cellular phone does not. Sometimes when I speak at continuing legal education programs I will tell folks that they can date me by the fact that when I went to law school there was a Fourth Amendment.

What someone does in a room they believe to be private should remain private. Young Mr. Clemente might have -- indeed almost certainly would have -- found a way to live with being gay, had he been given time to grow up, and support instead of hatred. He would have had that time if we had encouraged a culture that shuts the ubiquitous camera's eye out of that which is private and personal instead of chortling with glee about who got "caught" on camera doing what. I know one thing. Not everything is our business.

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