Rutgers Suicide Brings Cyberbullying, Hate Crime Charges

Published May 12, 2011

A sexual encounter between two college men surreptitiously video-streamed from a Web camera to another computer in the same dormitory building by the roommate of one of the men has prompted serious criminal charges related to cyberbullying, invasion of privacy, and bias intimidation.

Dharun Ravi, 19, was served 15 grand jury indictments on April 20 after the suicide death this past September of his Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi. If convicted of bias intimidation, also known as a “hate crime,” because Clementi was involved in homosexual activity, Ravi faces up to 10 years in prison.

“To paraphrase what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in attempting to define obscenity, people think they know a hate crime when they see one,” said Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Infotech & Telecom News. “As this crime du jour sweeps the country, also adding cyberbullying to the mix, the excessive breadth and vagueness of these laws should give us all cause for concern,” she said.

‘Acceptable Media Conduct’
Paul Mainardi, an attorney for Clementi’s family, told Reuters in April: “The criminal case is about the line between acceptable conduct and unacceptable conduct, . . . particularly in this era of electronic media.”

Ravi employed a computer Webcam to observe and stream private activity between Clementi and his partner. Ravi, who was 18 at the time, viewed Clementi and his friend on a remote computer owned by fellow dorm resident Molly Wei, and he posted descriptions of the activity he witnessed on his Twitter account.

“The hate-crime motivation of the student, Dharum Ravi, is said to be evidenced by his Twitter posting: ‘Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly’s room and turned on my Webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay,'” explained Martin. “The problem is this posting is susceptible to two possible interpretations, one innocent. Or is the mere fact it was posted sufficient evidence of hate? Who knows?”

Two days after the first video stream, Ravi announced on Twitter his plans to stream a second encounter, which never occurred because Clementi killed himself by jumping 202 feet from the George Washington Bridge.

Ravi, now 19, and Wei, also 19, are no longer enrolled at Rutgers. Wei applied for a pretrial intervention program in March, and is waiting to hear whether her application will be approved by the Middlesex prosecutor’s office. She was not indicted by the grand jury, but her case remains active with the Middlesex prosecutor.

‘Cyberbullying Adds Layer’
The 15 charges against Ravi include witness tampering, evidence tampering, and bias intimidation. Of these charges, bias intimidation poses the heaviest penalty, a prison sentence of five to 10 years. The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office asserts Ravi attempted to intimidate Clementi because the latter was gay.

“Under various states’ laws, a hate crime is generally defined as one motivated by prejudice based on the victim’s race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and others,” Martin said. “Depending on state law, crimes gaining ‘hate’ status can include murder, manslaughter, rape, assault, intimidation, arson, or property damage. Cyberbullying adds still another layer.”

After Clementi’s suicide, New Jersey legislators passed “The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” which was cosponsored by Senators Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Diane Allen (R-Burlington), and signed into law January 5 by Gov. Chris Christie (R), making New Jersey one of 45 states with active anti-bullying laws.

“The New Jersey law passed after Clementi’s suicide is said to be the broadest in the nation, but it puts the burden of identifying bullies and bullying on the schools, including universities such as Rutgers,” said Martin. “Failing to identify bullies and bullying means educational institutions can then be sued in civil cases for damages. So does Rutgers now have the obligation to put a Web cam in every room to detect a student Webcam?”

Martin argues such a scenario isn’t so farfetched. “Under a new interpretation by the Department of Justice of existing civil rights laws, K-12 schools now face federal prosecution for failing to monitor their students’ cell phone calls and Internet communications to detect bullying, even after school,” she said.

“Isn’t this where we’re going?” asked Martin. “Do we really want to go there?”

‘Emerge from Protected Status’
According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, one in five U.S. students are harassed each year. The group reports that nine in 10 homosexual teenagers are subjected to bullying each year.

Martin, however, says applying cyberbullying and bias intimidation to the Clementi case raises several legal questions.

“In the case of Tyler Clementi, his Rutgers classmate was charged with bias intimidation and 14 other alleged crimes,” she said. “The hate crime charge doesn’t pertain to Clementi’s suicide but instead to the Internet streaming of a Webcam video of Clementi’s sexual encounter with another male student in a dorm room.”

Martin said, “Where do prosecutors draw the line between illegal cyberbullying and freedom of speech and between bullying and hurt feelings? How do prosecutors prove the internal mental motives of the accused? Does any group ever emerge from protected status?”

Martin says she’s concerned about prosecutors applying the law unevenly. For example, she notes Clementi’s sex partner isn’t identified as a victim of the hate crime “because he didn’t commit suicide.”

Had Clementi’s partner been a female, Martin asks, “Wouldn’t any female be humiliated by a graphic video of her and her boyfriend being intimate?” She says another unanswered question is “How much of hate crime guilt is determined by the mental state of the victim?”

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.