Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction

On Friday, Dharun Ravi – the Rutgers student whose roommate Tyler Clementi killed himself – was found guilty of privacy invasion, tampering with evidence, and bias intimidation (a hate crime). When John Palfrey and I wrote about this case three weeks ago, I was really hopeful that the court proceedings would give clarity and relieve my uncertainty. Instead, I am left more conflicted and deeply saddened. I believe that the jury did their job, but I am not convinced that justice was served. More disturbingly, I think that the symbolic component of this case is deeply troubling.

In New Jersey, someone can be convicted of bias intimidation for committing an act…

  1. with the express purpose of intimidating an individual or group…
  2. knowing that the offense would cause an individual or group to feel intimidated…
  3. with which the individual or group on the receiving end believes that they were targeted…

… because of their race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

In Ravi’s trial, the jury concluded that Ravi neither intended to intimidate Clementi nor believed that his acts would make Clementi feel intimidated because of his sexuality. Yet, the jury did conclude that, based on computer evidence, Clementi probably felt intimidated because of his sexuality.

As someone who wants to rid the world of homophobia, this conviction leaves me devastated. I recognize the symbolic move that this is supposed to make. This is supposed to signal that homophobia will not be tolerated. But Ravi wasn’t convicted of being homophobic, but, rather, creating the “circumstances” in which Clementi would probably feel intimidated. In other words, Ravi is being punished for living in a culture of homophobia even though there’s little evidence to suggest that he perpetuated it intentionally. As Mary Gray has argued, we are all to blame for the culture of homophobia that has resulted in this tragedy.

I can’t help but think of Clementi’s parents in light of this. By all accounts, their reaction to their son’s confession that he was gay did more to intimidate Clementi based on his sexuality than Ravi’s stupid act. Yet, I can’t even begin to imagine that the court would charge, let alone convict, Clementi’s distraught parents of a hate crime. ::shudder::

I can’t justify Ravi’s decision to invade his roommate’s privacy, especially not at a moment in which he would be extremely vulnerable. I also cannot justify Ravi’s decision to mess with evidence, even though I suspect he did so out of fear. But I also don’t think that either of these actions deserve 10 years of jail time or deportation (two of the options given to the judge). I don’t think that’s justice.

This case is being hailed for its symbolism, but what is the message that it conveys? It says that a brown kid who never intended to hurt anyone because of their sexuality will do jail time, while politicians and pundits who espouse hatred on TV and radio and in stump speeches continue to be celebrated. It says that a teen who invades the privacy of his peer will be condemned, even while companies and media moguls continue to profit off of more invasive invasions.

I’m also sick and tired of people saying that this will teach kids an important lesson. Simply put, it won’t. No teen that I know identifies their punking and pranking of their friends and classmates as bullying, let alone bias intimidation. Sending Ravi to jail will do nothing to end bullying. Yet, it lets people feel like it will and that makes me really sad. There’s a lot to be done in this realm and this does nothing to help those who are suffering every day.

The jury did its job. The law was followed. I have little doubt that Ravi did the things that he was convicted of doing. But I am not celebrating because I don’t think that this case made the world a better place. I think that it simply destroyed another life.

8 thoughts on “Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction

  1. Q

    I agree, this case destroyed a life without really bringing any real closure to anyone. I also don’t think that there is any one person responsible for another person committing suicide. Albeit Ravi’s snooping probably made matters worse and I cannot even imagine what Tyler went through when he found out, however 10 years or deportation is a lot. Would this have happened if Ravi was a caucasian US citizen?

  2. Thanks for helping me understand the difference between the charges. Ravi was not convicted of intending intimidation but of causing Tyler to feel intimidated. So, instead of focusing on the perpetrator’s intentionality, the law is about the response to the action. I find this very scary. One can control one’s actions and one’s intentions, presumably, but one cannot control other people’s responses. To be responsible for someone else’s state of mind seems unfair.

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  4. Danah, one thing your quotation of the law leaves out is that those three clauses are strung together by “or”s such that any of the three if satisfied can trigger a conviction. That’s important and speaks to the legislative “defaults” here for hate crime. The default here, coupled with the penalty, means that Ravi would have had to live in the mind of Clementi to know if he were to be engaging in this new type of crime. I suspect the first two triggers should be the “or”s and that the last should be necessary (“and”) for the ultimate conviction. Or something like that a bit more nuanced!

  5. As an academic/administrator my concern is that Clementi and Ravi may not have been given the support they needed in a fragile first-semester of freshman year. College, at least if one thinks of it as an experience that is intended to build character rather than mere competency in a profession, by nature is going to challenge students to confront cultural/sexual/ethnic/class differences. Moreover, in constructing those challenges (as it did in pairing Clementi and Ravi together in a shared dorm room) college also needs to provide the forums and support where those differences can be explored and aired without undue fear, where mistakes and biases can be repaired and emended, and where transgressions can be redressed or tempered before they permanently harm. Were Clementi and Ravi given adequate access to these resources? I’m not sure they were. But wherever one wishes to find fault or failure, whether in one or more of the protagonists, a homophobic society, or a legal system that is failing to evolve as quickly as digital technology, the outcome should also serve as a reminder that if universities want to continue to play an integral part in challenging students to confront difference and to learn constructively from those confrontations, they may need to spend more time in the role of loco parentis.

  6. stubbyno2

    I support diversity; I don’t think society, or nature, can survive without it. But I am against hate crime legislation. It smacks of thought police to me. If someone wants to hate Nazis, or football hooligans, or bicyclists, or gay people, that’s their business. If they commit a crime, they should be punished for the crime, not for what they were thinking when they committed the crime. To me, hate crime legislation puts the government into a frightening role. I don’t want to know what people are thinking, I just want to know if they’ve committed a malicious act.

    1. Will

      Umm if some one commits a crime and the crime is intended to perpetuate hate towards an identifiable group, then I think hate crime is necessary. Thinking about your hate for a group: ie. gay people is one thing, but acting on that hate for the purpose of perpetuating that hate is another thing entirely.

  7. avinash

    I think we are forgetting something in this context: society is still largely homophobic that Celementi had to hide his sexual orientation. When he committed suicide it was not because he felt offended but he was more embarrassed they way society will treat him; in particular they way their parents will react. To put the blame completely on Ravi, 10 years of imprisonment is grossly unfair. However, he should be punished with something mild so that such stupid action can be avoided in future. But the main question is how to tackle the political and religious institution those are homophobic. Such acerbic punishment will not deter them.

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