If you think your Internet posts won’t have an effect on anyone, or they won’t matter to anyone, consider the cases of Tyler Clementi and Gene Cooley. Both these men’s lives were impacted by images and hateful words splashed across the Internet by people who thought they could hide behind a computer screen.
In the viral world, what was once fodder for gossips at the local cafÃ© quickly takes on a life of its own. It streaks through the Web like blood flowing through your veins only the information isn’t confined to a small area anymore, it spreads to places you might have never thought, and it lingers there just waiting for someone to type a name in a search bar.
Ugly words, private images, and false accusations destroyed Gene Cooley’s life and drove Tyler Clementi to commit suicide. You think your words won’t hurt? You think you are just blowing off steam? You think you can’t get into trouble? You think the First Amendment protects you? You might want to think again.
Examine the case of Gene Cooley. According to Sybil Denise Ballew, Gene Cooley behaved inappropriately towards her. Gene didn’t know Sybil, but had apparently worked with her more than 10 years ago. Sybil held a grudge against Gene for so long, that when Gene’s fiancÃ©e was murdered by her ex-husband, Sybil went on the warpath. She created false identities on Topix, a community news site, and proceeded to post allegations against Cooley. Sybil said Cooley was a drug addict who had been in and out of rehab facilities. She called him a pervert, said he shouldn’t be around children, and even called for authorities to investigate him in his fiancÃ©e’s murder.
Posting under the names Mouth, Yuck and Bug, Sybil tore Gene’s life apart. His fiancÃ©e’s parents turned against him, barring him from her funeral, he lost his job, and Sybil’s words forced Gene to move from the town where he grew up to protect his two young sons. His life was in shambles until he hired an attorney to fight against the defaming words that had destroyed him.
The words were still on the website when his attorney, Russell Stookey, was able to get the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the poster. That short series of numbers led Stookey directly to Sybil and ended with Sybil Denise Ballew defending herself in a court of law against defamation charges. Defamation, as defined by The Free Dictionary, is “Any intentional false communication, either written or spoken, that harms a person’s reputation; decreases the respect, regard, or confidence in which a person is held; or induces disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions or feelings against a person.” The courts found in favor of Gene Cooley, he was awarded $404,000, and proving you cannot destroy a person’s life while hiding behind a computer screen without paying a price. Still think you can hide behind the First Amendment, Sybil?
In Tyler Clementi’s case, pictures posted by his roommate Dharun Ravi, along with Dharun’s tweets about the posts, where to find the live feed on the internet, and what Tyler was doing in the privacy of his dorm room, drove Tyler to fling himself off a bridge. This case has drawn the attention of every news outlet. Most everyone is familiar with the case and knows Dharun Ravi was found guilty of invasion of privacy and of bias intimidation. Although Dharun claims he wasn’t acting out of hate, he admits to doing some stupid things that he is sorry for. This apology is a little late for Tyler.
According to CNN reporter Christopher Wolfe, there are lessons to be learned about how you should conduct yourself on the Internet. Your online actions can hurt someone; you can easily destroy someone’s life by posting hateful words and false accusations. Adults should quit acting like children hiding behind their mothers’ skirts and your children need to be educated about inappropriate Internet behavior. Be aware of what you say online. The words written on the internet can linger forever, and you should think before you post. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, why would you post it online for the entire world to see? Sticks and stones may break your bones, but Internet words can destroy you.