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.

Anti-bullying law stresses NJ schools

A new anti-bullying law requires New Jersey schools to police campuses and online communications to protect students, reports the New York Times. But superintendents and school boards complain they’re being asked to do more with the same resources.

Under a new state law in New Jersey, lunch-line bullies in the East Hanover schools can be reported to the police by their classmates this fall through anonymous tips to the Crimestoppers hot line.

In Elizabeth, children, including kindergartners, will spend six class periods learning, among other things, the difference between telling and tattling.

And at North Hunterdon High School, students will be told that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander when it comes to bullying: if they see it, they have a responsibility to try to stop it.

The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights “demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes,” reports the Times.

Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.

School officials also worry about lawsuits.

Most bullying complaints involve Internet comments that lead to campus confrontations, says Richard Bergacs, an assistant principal at North Hunterdon High. “It’s gossip, innuendo, rumors — and people getting mad about it.”

This summer, thousands of school employees attended training sessions on the new law; more than 200 districts have snapped up a $1,295 package put together by a consulting firm that includes a 100-page manual and a DVD.

Westfield Superintendent Margaret Dolan worries that students and their parents “will find it easier to label minor squabbles bullying than to find ways to work out their differences.”

The law was motivated by the suicide of a Rutgers freshman, Tyler Clementi, whose gay sexual encounter was secretly filmed and aired online by his college roommate.

 

 

 

FIRE: Anti-bullying law restricts free speech

Congress is considering an anti-bullying bill that “gravely threatens free speech,” argues the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).  The bill is named for Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who killed himself after his sexual encounter with a male student in his dorm room was filmed and put online.

“Tyler Clementi was subjected to an unconscionable violation of privacy, but that conduct was already criminal and prohibited by every college in America,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “For decades, colleges have used vague, broad harassment codes to silence even the most innocuous speech on campus. The proposed law requires universities to police even more student speech under a hopelessly vague standard that will be a disaster for open debate and discourse on campus. And all this in response to student behavior that was already illegal.”

Balancing free-speech rights with the desire to protect students from abuse, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that harassment can be banned only if it is “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” The bill removes the requirement that the behavior be objectively offensive.

The loss of this crucial “reasonable person” standard means that those most interested in silencing viewpoints they don’t like will effectively determine what speech should be banned from campus. Unconstitutional definitions of “harassment” have already provided the most commonly abused rationale justifying censorship, having been applied to a student magazine at Tufts University that published true if unflattering facts about Islam, a Brandeis professor who used an epithet in order to explain its origins and condemn its use as a slur, and even a student at an Indiana college simply for publicly reading a book.

Clementi’s roommate and an alleged accomplice are facing criminal charges for invasion of privacy.

Bully-free school is a civil right

After a wave of student suicides, the Obama administration is launching an anti-bullying campaign, warning educators that students’ civil rights may be violated by bullying and harassment. Punishing bullies may not be enough, wrote Russlyn Ali, assistant Education secretary for civil rights, in an advisory letter.

As an example, Ali noted in the advisory that a gay student might withdraw from school activities after being subjected to anti-gay slurs and other intimidation. If the school reprimands the perpetrators to stop the bullying, her advisory said, that would not necessarily be enough to ensure that students are free from harassment based on gender stereotypes.

“The school had an obligation to take immediate and effective action to eliminate the hostile environment,” Ali wrote.

As part of the It Gets Better project to persuade gay teens to keep going, President Obama made a video. “We’ve got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage,” Obama says.

In New Jersey,  a bipartisan coalition of legislators has introduced an “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” which would require more training on preventing bullying and stiffen reporting rules.

Last month, Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate set up a webcam and streamed online a gay sexual encounter in his dorm room.

Update: After a conversation with Russlyn Ali, who’s a friend, Rick Hess is concerned about implementation. Ali said the feds will move to “enforcement” only if local officials ignore a systemic problem.  He trusts her judgement, but . .  .

My uneasiness is that I know of far too many cases where overeager federal bureaucrats have turned reasonable processes into ludicrous exercises, and where knee-knocking state and local officials have responded by winding educators in a bubble wrap of infuriating, time-consuming requirements and process.

. . . I fear that the current Department is inclined to adopt an expansive view of its role. And I worry about teachers and school leaders getting wrapped in new rules, procedures, and processes designed primarily to keep the feds at bay.

Bullying and harassment are common on school campuses, if federal data are accurate. Hess wonders if we’ve “defined bullying down”  to include teasing.

We absolutely need to protect vulnerable youth from bullies and harassment. We need schools to be places where students are safe and able to learn.

But we need to appreciate “the difference between asking schools to combat harassment and expecting overburdened educators to bring peace on earth and good will among men.”

Yes.