Courts must uphold students’ privacy rights

On April 10, 2000, Elizabeth Shin committed suicide by setting herself on fire in her dormitory room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was a 19-year-old sophomore. From the beginning of her studies at MIT the previous year, Shin had been in and out of the school’s mental health programs. Several times, she cut herself, and many more times, Shin had suicidal thoughts – sometimes articulated to psychiatric professionals, sometimes kept to herself.

Certainly, MIT officials knew, at least to some extent, the severity of Shin’s depression and mental instability. It seems disingenuous, though, to claim they could have “saved” her from her own demons.

Despite this, however, Shin’s parents have filed a wrongful death suit against MIT, alleging medical malpractice and administrative negligence and faulting the school for not informing them of their daughter’s problems.

While the first two parts of the suit are debatable, the latter claim is outlandish, and it is unfortunate that such a tragic incident would be worsened by what seems to be a grieving party’s grasping at litigious straws. Shin’s parents say if MIT had not been so concerned with their daughter’s right to privacy and instead had informed them of what she was going through, Elizabeth would be alive today.

They might be right. Perhaps, if they had known their daughter was so close to killing herself, they could have stopped her. But the course often seems clearer in hindsight, and in this case, MIT officials correctly erred on the side of privacy rights, though the outcome was nothing less than devastating.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on “in loco parentis,” and it has rightly decided that even if a person happens to be attending a college or university, it is not within the purview of the institution to act as a surrogate parent to an adult. And not only is it not the institution’s job, it also is not its right. Privacy is a sacred thing, both legally and morally. And with respect for people’s privacy comes the risk they will do something terrible. But we, as a society, operate under the assumption of innocent until proven guilty. Just because someone says he or she want to commit a crime, we are not justified in locking that person away so he or she will not have the chance to harm another. Unfortunately, that same logic applies when the person might harm him-or herself.

At some point, yes, others can step in and restrain the person. But since Shin was a legal adult, her thoughts were nobody’s business but her own and those with whom she chose to share them. MIT had neither the obligation nor the right to tell her parents.

This certainly is not to say the parents were at fault for not finding out themselves. Suicide is an intensely personal act – despite its intensely communal ramifications – that can rarely, if ever, be accurately predicted.

And because so many factors in cases like this are personal, the legal adult affected is the only person qualified to decide whom to tell. If the courts decide otherwise, it will open the door to breaches of privacy at colleges and universities across the nation, and they will not always stay relegated to symptoms of depression.

The privacy of every college student in the nation is threatened by this lawsuit. Even the depth of the Shin family’s tragedy does not justify that.