Today, Dharun Ravi begins his thirty day prison sentence for his conviction on crimes relating to using a webcam twice to spy on his Rutgers roommate Tyler Clemente. Clemente committed suicide a day later. (For background, The New York Times has a topic page on the case.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about the case over the past couple of years, especially since Ravi’s conviction in March. And especially given what he was actually sentence for.
Of course, given the facts of the case, Ravi’s conviction was not at all surprising. He used a webcam to spy on Clemente on two occasions and used social media to invite others to watch. On both occasions, Ravi’s use of antigay slang on social media indicated that he expected to catch Clementi in a homosexual liaison. After he was indicted, he tried to delete text messages and coached his girlfriend on what to tell police. Prosecutors indicted him on counts relating to all of these activities, but did not pursue counts related to Clemente’s suicide. Proving a direct and sole causal link would be difficult, especially in light of some sealed evidence provided to the judge. His indictment on hate crime charges (“bias intimidation” in New Jersey) caused quite a bit of debate around the country about the purpose of hate crime legislation and how far such prosecution should go. Is there a difference between the callous taunts of youth and hateful threats? Should hate crime designation be reserved for physical assault, or are insults online sufficient?
In the end, Ravi was convicted on 15 counts: 4 relating to invasion of privacy, 4 on bias intimidation, and 7 related to monkeying with the evidence (evidence tampering, witness tampering and hindering apprehension or prosecution). He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 3 years probation. He was also “fined $11,905 for cyberbullying, payable in $300 monthly installments” and has to complete 300 hours of community service, including “alternative lifestyle counseling.” He may end up serving only 20 days with good behavior.
And as with the indictments, Ravi’s light sentencing touched off debate about hate crimes. Some people believed that 30 days was too lenient for bias intimidation. Others, including many in the gay community, believed that stiff hate crimes penalties should be reserved for clear instances of the most serious of crimes. The judge seems to have tried to find a middle ground, knowing he would please no one. I’m still not sure where I weigh in on this because I can see both sides. You don’t want to punish people for their thoughts, nor do you want to punish too harshly simply insensitivity that is connected with tragic events. At the same time, there is real a place for defending those who are particularly vulnerable and abused in society.
But what is most interesting here is what Ravi was actually sentenced for. According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s charge-by-charge account, Ravi received:
- 3 counts of invasion/attempted invasion of privacy: probation
- 4 counts of bias intimidation: probation
- 3 counts of “tampering with evidence”/”hindering apprehension or prosecution” by changing/deleting tweets: probation
But, wait, where’s the jail time? It is in:
- 1 count of attempted invasion of privacy
- 4 counts of “tampering with evidence”/”hindering apprehension or prosecution” by either “not telling complete truth” to police or influencing Molly Wei to do so.
- 1 count of “tampering with physical evidence” by changing/deleting tweets: probation
First thing that jumps out is that there is no jail time for bias intimidation. That’s all punished in probation, community service, and fines. But let’s set that aside for the moment.
Second thing that jumps out is that most of the punishment here is for interruption of the investigatory process: tampering with witnesses and evidence.
But the most interesting thing here is that Dharun Ravi was given only probation for invading Tyler Clemete’s privacy the first time around. He set up a camera and then invited others to watch the feed. And it was successful. Amidst all of the other stuff, his punishment for this is basically a slap on the wrist. The jail time comes in only the second time around with the camera, and only on the fourth count.
What this tells me is that as long as you only do it once, there really is no punishment for spying on someone and inviting your friends to watch. One wonders if Ravi had not tampered with evidence whether or not he would have received any jail time at all.
Wire tapping laws were created prevent people from spying on one another whenever they felt like it. In many states, you can’t even legally record a conversation with someone else without getting their consent (that’s why customer service lines always say “this call may be recorded…”). Yet, you can use a webcam to spy on your roommate with essentially no repercussions. My guess is that as long as your roommate doesn’t commit suicide, no one is going to prosecute anyway.
There is lots of rhetoric saying that “privacy is over” these days. Generally, it is connected to social media and the online world. Looks like it may be over in the real world, too.
The problem is that the ultimate cost of invading privacy can be high.
On one hand, here’s someone who was struggling with the process of growing into social and sexual adulthood—something that we all have to go through—and it turns out he wasn’t safe to do that in his own room. We all need safe spaces in which to try to figure out who we are. We try things as we go along; some work and some don’t. In the process we build our identity. We all need spaces to engage in that process, and sometimes that space needs to be private. It is critical for our integral human development. Tyler Clemente assumed—legitimately I think—that he should be afforded basic privacy in his own room. Unfortunately, he didn’t get it.
On the other hand, we have a guy who was struggling with the new college environment, who made the mistake of thinking that another person’s struggles were fodder for entertainment. Easy to see why Ravi might think that; this was like his own little reality television show–Big Brother at Rutgers. Unfortunately, his actions lead to some very tragic events, some in his control, others probably not. And in our media age, his mistake has been witnessed by hundreds of millions of people. How’s that for “privacy is over”?
I’m not trying in the least bit to excuse Ravi’s actions. What he did showed profound lack of basic concern for another person’s dignity. At the same time, my guess is that all of us can think of a time when we said or did something stupid or hurtful, and that we probably should have known better than to do. There was a time, though, that taunts disappeared shortly after being spoken. They didn’t reverberate painfully through space and time as they do now.
I’m glad that I’m not a kid these days.
In the end, I don’t think anybody wins here—and that includes us.