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Monday, September 12, 2016

State v. Dharun Ravi: What Happened?

On September 9, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey released its opinion in State v. Dharun Ravi. Dharun Ravi, of course, was the roommate of Tyler Clementi, a young Rutgers student who, after Mr. Ravi and his friends spied on him during an intimate encounter with another man, committed suicide on September 22, 2010. The court overturned all of Mr. Ravi's convictions.

To refresh our memories, here's what happened. (All numbers in parentheses refer to the page numbers in the Appellate Division's decision).

Tyler and Mr. Ravi were roommates at Rutgers University. Shortly after being notified that Tyler would be Mr. Ravi's roommate, one of Mr. Ravi's friends found out that someone using Tyler's email address had posted on a forum for gay people (7). So, Mr. Ravi came into college with at least an inkling that his roommate was gay. Tyler, however, was not open about his sexuality. Tyler was still in the closet.

On two occasions in September 2010, Tyler asked for some time in the room by himself (10). He had met a man using a gay social networking platform and invited him to his room (24). Mr. Ravi left. On the first occasion, which took place on Sept. 19, Mr. Ravi actually came back into the room within a few minutes and appeared to "shuffle some papers" on his desk. It turned out he was also adjusting the position of his webcam to face Tyler's bed. Mr. Ravi then used his technical skills to have his video chat platform automatically accept all calls. This allowed anyone who called him to see through his webcam. On both Sept. 19 and Sept. 21, Mr. Ravi tweeted out several comments about Tyler being gay, that he asked to be alone in their room, and that he was hooking up with another man (12). He encouraged others to call his account and watch (18). Mr. Ravi and quite a few of his friends watched live video of Tyler and another man "making out" on Sept. 19 (11). They tried to do so again on Sept. 21.

By reading some of Mr. Ravi's public tweets, Tyler found out that Mr. Ravi had invaded his privacy and made him the subject of others' prying eyes without his consent. Tyler then complained to his resident advisor and asked for either a private room or a different roommate (26-27). On Sept. 22, Tyler's RA notified Mr. Ravi about Tyler's request for a new room and explained Tyler's allegation that Mr. Ravi had invaded his privacy (29). At 8:46 PM that evening, Mr. Ravi wrote Tyler a text that (sort of) apologized (29-30). Shortly thereafter, Tyler, who had already left campus, used his cellphone to write on his Facebook page: "I'm going to jump off the GW Bridge. Sorry." Moments later, he did so (30).

On April 20, 2011, a grand jury returned indictments against Mr. Ravi for invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, witness tampering, and hindering apprehension or prosecution. On March 16, 2012, the jury convicted Mr. Ravi on all counts. After denying a motion for a new trial, the trial judge sentenced Mr. Ravi to 3 years probation, dependent on serving 30 days in jail (4). Mr. Ravi also had to complete 300 hours of community service, attend counseling on cyberbullying and diversity, and pay $10,000 (which was to be dedicated to helping victims of bias crimes) (5).

September 2010 was a difficult month for the LGBT community. Tyler was just one of 10 gay adolescent boys to commit suicide. Billy Lucas, 15, died on Sept. 9. Cody Barker, 17, died on Sept. 13. Seth Walsh, 13, died on Sept. 19. Asher Brown, 13, died on Sept. 23. Harrison Brown, 15, died on Sept. 25. Raymond Chase, 19, died on Sept. 29. Felix Sacco, 17, died on Sept. 29. And Caleb Nolt, 14, died on Sept. 30.

Tyler's death brought extensive media attention to the problems of suicide in the LGBTQ communities and antigay bullying. Celebrities, including Ellen Degeneres and Anderson Cooper, spoke out about both issues. Antigay bullying is indeed an epidemic facing our schools and our communities. But it is worth asking: Was Tyler a victim of "cyberbullying"? In one sense, it doesn't matter. Tyler's story brought much needed attention to a problem that needs to be addressed, and his parents have joined the fight against bullying and cyberbullying in the years since his death. 

But definitions are important. There are a host of definitions of “cyberharassment” or “cyberbullying” milling around. And imprecise and inconsistent definitions frustrate our ability to understand, talk about, and solve the problem. Danielle Keats Citron, author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace and the leading cyberharassment scholar, defines cyberharassment generally as repeated online expression that intentionally targets a particular person and causes the targeted individual substantial emotional distress and/or the fear of bodily harm. There are five core elements to that definition: repetition, use of digital technology, intent to target, targeting, and substantiality of harm.

Cyberbullying is a subcategory of cyberharassment that includes all five of those elements but is focused squarely on youth-to-youth behavior. It can be understood as repeated online expression that is intended to cause substantial harm by one youth or group of youths targeting another with an observed or perceived power imbalance. This definition retains those five factors and adds two important elements: youth and power imbalance, the latter of which is actually common in many forms of cyberharassment. The asymmetry of power, which could be based on identity (i.e., a member of the majority attacking a member of a traditionally marginalized and discriminated minority), draws the line between schoolyard teasing and bullying. It should come as no surprise, then, that young members of the LGBTQ community are uniquely susceptible to bullying and its tragic consequences. They are bullied because they deviate from the norm and because antigay bullying is either tacitly or explicitly condoned by antigay bigotry and homophobia in society at large. This definition of cyberbullying captures the worst online aggressive behavior while excluding the otherwise mean, hateful, and distasteful speech that free speech norms tend to tolerate. Cyberbullying is, at bottom, cyberharassment involving youth. And it is an epidemic affecting our schools.

Although Tyler was targeted because of his sexual orientation and Mr. Ravi's behavior caused Tyler to experience substantial emotional distress, it is not clear that what happened to Tyler involved repeated behavior that rises to the level of a course of conduct. However, I am not sure that matters at all. Mr. Ravi was not accused of violating an anti-bullying law; he was accused of invading Tyler's privacy, which is exactly what he did.

With this background, I would like to use several forthcoming posts to explore several theories and questions about the Appellate Division's decision in State v. Dharun Ravi. Stay tuned for the next post!

Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on September 12, 2016 at 09:00 AM in Criminal Law, Culture, Current Affairs, Information and Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink

Comments

"Tyler, however, was not open about his sexuality. Tyler was still in the closet."

At least two of his high school friends he told; he wasn't a gregarious person; that pretty much was his circle of friends. His mother he told. His father he told. One of his brothers he told. In the short time he was at Rutgers, he joined a homosexual students' club. He'd used his actual e-mail address on a forum called (IIRC) "JustUsBoys". Ravi et al figured it out just searching for the address. There was nothing particularly confidential about his homosexuality; he just wasn't running up and down the hallways festooned with pink triangles. He did not discuss it with Ravi. No surprise there. They didn't like each other.

North of 40,000 people commit suicide every year. The do so for any and all of the reasons which cause people distress. The overwhelming majority of people facing similar circumstances do not respond to them by putting a bullet in their head or jumping off a bridge. And in almost no cases do 1st degree relatives of suicides set up foundations with said suicide's name on them. Tyler Clementi was an emotionally fragile young man with several problems. They were his particular problems, not manifestations of any systematic social problem other than ones which abide in any age: there's quite generally a shortage of courtesy, empathy, and discretion in this world, among the young more than just about anyone else. It's a reasonable guess that 80-odd people committed suicide in New Jersey in September 2010. You've never heard of 79 of them, because they were distressed people of no use to mouthy pressure groups, and are mourned only by their families and a few friends.

What Dharun Ravi did was install a webcam in his own dorm room. He also pointed and laughed at a vulnerable contemporary, something a certain class of adolescent does the way other people breathe. Very unkind, but the penal code is not an instrument to rid the world of unkindness. In Middlesex County, NJ, the SJWs in the prosecutor's office figured it was worth a FIFTEEN count indictment which incorporated felony charges. So, you had a prosecutor whose hobby is using a cannon to kill cats and a mess of idiot jurors willing to assist her in this enterprise.

Posted by: Art Deco | Sep 12, 2016 12:24:35 PM

Tyler was just one of 10 gay adolescent boys to commit suicide.

Come again? Two of the feature articles / obituaries mention girlfriends, one says nothing about sexuality, and two others concern youths who were 13 years old when they died.

Posted by: Art Deco | Sep 12, 2016 3:36:15 PM

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