The Ravi rethink

An 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, Dharun Ravi bragged on Twitter about using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate and his male date, inviting friends to watch a second date. In a New Yorker story, Ravi comes across as immature, attention-seeking jerk, but not a homophobe. The roommate, Tyler Clementi, joked with a friend about a ”five sec peep,” unplugged Ravi’s computer to prevent spying and asked to switch rooms. Then he committed suicide.

Ravi now faces 10 years in prison and deportation to his native India. A New Jersey jury convicted him of invasion of privacy and “bias intimidation,” a hate crime. That’s prompted a mass rethink. Ten years?

Make the Punishment Fit the Cyber-Crime writes Emily Bazelon in a New York Times op-ed.

According to New Jersey’s civil rights law, you are subject to a much higher penalty if the jury finds that you committed one of a broad range of underlying offenses for the purpose of targeting someone because of his race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

The idea of shielding vulnerable groups is well intentioned. But with the nation on high alert over bullying — especially when it intersects with computer technology and the Internet — these civil rights statutes are being stretched to go after teenagers who acted meanly, but not violently. This isn’t what civil rights laws should be for.

It was a “hateless hate crime,” writes Jacob Sullum in Reason. “Before the trial the prosecutors offered him a deal that involved no jail time and a chance to avoid deportation, which suggests even they do not believe he should be punished as severely as a violent felon.”

I doubt the verdict will stand, if only because the defense wasn’t allowed to see Clementi’s suicide notes, which were judged “irrelevant.”  Ravi wasn’t charged with causing the suicide, but it was very relevant to the decision to charge him with a hate crime, not just invasion of privacy.

Teens need to know that cyberbullying is a crime, counters Gregg Weinlein, a retired teacher, in an Ed Week commentary.

Too often, teens flip off the word “bully” as childish, knowing that assailants today are much more vicious than the playground bullies of the previous century. Teenagers today must fend off the silent assassins of the digital age, who operate with phones and tablets and plant emotional land mines in social-networking sites. The harassment and text assaults perpetrated by some teenagers should have a criminal connotation if we are to see a shift in how older students perceive and understand this abusive behavior.

In this case, “criminal connotation” means prison and deportation.