I am having some trouble with the Ravi verdict

From the New York Times:

A jury on Friday convicted a former Rutgers University student, Dharun Ravi, of hate crimes for using a webcam to spy on his roommate kissing another man in their dorm room.

The jury also found Mr. Ravi guilty of tampering with evidence and witnesses for trying to change Twitter and text messages in which he had encouraged others to watch the webcam.

Mr. Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge three days after Mr. Ravi viewed him on the webcam. The case became a symbol of the struggles facing gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers and the problem of cyberbullying in an era when laws governing hate crimes have not kept up with evolving technology.

I am genuinely troubled by this verdict.

Without having met Mr. Ravi, it is hard to know exactly what kind of person he is.  I don’t really know if he hates gay people.  After having read about the whole case pretty extensively after it happened, and more recently in an in-depth article in the New Yorker, I have my doubts.  What does seem pretty damn clear is that he’s kind of an asshole.  Or, at least, he behaved like one.  As someone who has done indubitably asshole-ish things in my life, I don’t believe he’s irredeemably evil or warped, but what he did was invasive and disgusting and shameful.

But was it criminal?

The Clementi suicide occurred within of a series of suicides attributed to anti-gay bullying.  I’ve actually given talks at professional conferences about the topic, and I know that it garnered a tremendous amount of nationwide attention.  I think the attention to the issue is overwhelming for the good, and I do not mean to downplay the seriousness of how hard bullying can be on gay teenagers.  I was, after all, a gay teenager once myself.  The myriad positive responses to the problem are sincerely heartening to me, and it is immensely gratifying to know that people actually take the issue seriously and care enough about gay and lesbian youth to want a change to happen.

But I also wonder if the attention has led to an unjust outcome in this case.  To me, what Ravi did was reprehensible, but not in the same category as someone who would beat the tar out of a kid for being gay.  If Clementi hadn’t committed suicide, but had instead complained loudly to the Rutgers administration, Ravi would have (one certainly hopes) faced strict discipline for violating the privacy and dignity of his roommate, but it would have stayed at that level.  When the story became part of the larger narrative sweeping the country, I fear it lost its proper proportion.

Now, do I think there would have been the same meat-headed, juvenile sniggering if Clementi had brought a woman back to his dorm room?  Almost certainly not.  But I’m not so incredibly naive as to believe that gay sexuality doesn’t hold a perverse, nigh unto comedic fascination for a certain kind of immature, unsophisticated straight male.  For a lot of dudes out there, seeing two guys kiss would be the stuff of a gross-out movie.  Is this attitude hateful?  I don’t think so.  Exasperating, frustrating and stupid?  Yes.  But not hateful.

When I contemplate the ultimately doomed but credible presidential candidacy of a man who would happily tell me that I should never have had the right to adopt my son, and that I should expect no legal protections for my family whatsoever, I see hatred.  And dangerous hatred, at that.  When I contemplate the tragedy of Tyler Clementi’s death, I see the consequences of his roommate’s adolescent idiocy spun way out of control.  And I worry that calling it hatred dilutes our understanding of what hatred really is, and how we should really be fighting it.


Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I have trouble with it too. Not the question of whether it’s criminal. I’m willing to grant, if only for the purpose of argument, the that the NJ courts would not a allow a conviction on these charges if, with the facts not substantially in dispute (as I think they are not), it couldn’t be shown that Ravi’s actions did in fact comprise the elements of these crimes.

    My problem is just with whether in identical case but where the victim of such crimes did not then take further extreme, freely chosen action of his own in ending his life, the decision to prosecute Mr. Ravi would have been the same. I suspect it would not have. The question is, whether there is a major problem to be had with this. Surely, prosecutorial decisions are as a rule made in light of the totality of all the effects of any actions that are deemed to be prosecutable, not entirely without reference to them. On the other hand, here the question of effect is highly unclear. Mr. Clementi mental health was in doubt prior to this incident, if what I have heard about the case is correct. Still and all, I take it that strictly speaking, Mr. Ravi’s actions were illegal. Does he have ay claim to maltreatment at being prosecuted merely because, almost certainly, absent Clementi’s positive act, those actions, in the context of freshmen becoming acclimated to living with a stranger (I think?) in a dorm, would almost surely have been dealt with outside of the justice system? I am genuinely conflicted about that question. I tend to think that, in some way, he both hasn’t been done ill, but at the same time, is unfortunate in some vaguely pitiable way, even though his act deserves no pity and certainly was deserving of some consequences. If the judge showed considerable mercy in sentencing (assuming a showing of sincere remorse), I think that would be quite appropriate

    In any case, if he is at all disposed and at liberty to do so (and I would understand completely and hardly be surprised if he were not), I would be extremely interested in Mark Thompson’s take on this case.

    • (I think?) refers to whether they were freshmen. I think they were.

    • It’s realy n0t often I say this, but I agree with every word you say here.

      If the New Yorker article is to be believed, this was all on the road to resolving itself. Then Clementi killed himself. We don’t know why. Speculation was rendered. It became a media event. Speculation was rendered that Ravi was in some way responsible for Clementi’s death. All of these lead to what could be considered somewhat selective prosecution in spirit, if not in law.

      Laws were broken, but there’s still a lot to be uncomfortable about here.

    • I agree with everything said here. It’s sort of frustrating when someone is prosecuted for something that is illegal, but most people would not have been prosecuted for. And it’s unclear why Clementi committed suicide. Of all the cases of gay bullying, I wouldn’t have picked this one as most likely to end in suicide. Clement was taking steps to switch roommates and that would have ended it.

      Also from what I understand, Ravi’s frustration came about because within the first couple of weeks of school of freshman, his roommate was inviting a significantly older non-college student to have sex with him. That would have unsettled me if my roommate did that at that age. Not that I at all think what he did was warranted, or wasn’t disgusting and wrong and immature. But part of his motivation for lashing out may have had nothing to do with Clementi’s being gay. Part of it clearly did, for the adolescent sniggering reasons, but maybe some didn’t. I agree with Dr. Saunders – lots of stupidity, not hatred.

  2. It seems like there were some illegal things done here, apart from the suicide. He’s resp0nsible for a privacy invasion. But that’s a different ballfield altogether than a hate crime charge put together due to a suicide that likely did not stem from the actions involved.

    • And the evidence tampering. Why the evidence tampering? To hide the fact he was doing it because Clementi had a man in his room.

      • The evidence/witness tampering is problematic (actually, I could give a pass on the evidence tampering if he hadn’t lied so much about it). As far as the hate crimes angle about this goes, it may be legally viable, but it’s conceptually problematic to me. Hate crimes as a mitigation against the terrorizing of someone because of hatred of homosexuality is not something I particularly have a problem with. This seems to take it a step further into an area that I am less comfortable with (“It’s hard to say whether he really had any sort of actual animosity towards homosexuality or homosexuals, but his actions were geared towards one here.”).

    • I think they should have charged Ravi with invasion of privacy and left it at that. Would Ravi have been charged if Clementi hadn’t committed suicide? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean that it was unjust to charge Ravi. Only a tiny fraction of illegal behavior results in criminal charges. If an alleged offense becomes notorious for any reason, it is more likely to attract the attention of a prosecutor.

      Strictly speaking, the charges against Ravi had nothing to do with the fact that Clementi committed suicide. He wasn’t charged with contributing to Clementi’s death. Clementi’s suicide attracted publicity, which increased the pressure on prosecutors to intervene. It’s not unreasonable that the tragedy cast a massive public spotlight on the events leading up to it. The public can’t demand justice for a crime it doesn’t know about. If Clementi hadn’t died, the crime probably never would have been reported, let alone prosecuted, but that’s just a fact about bullying and harassment cases in general. That doesn’t mean that the state shouldn’t prosecute when evidence of guilt is offered up on a silver platter for some other reason.

      Judging by the New Yorker article, Ravi shouldn’t have been charged with hate crimes. It seems like he was motivated more by a generic impulse to be a dick than any systematic hatred of gay people. If it had been up to me, I would have charged him with invasion of privacy, or which he was clearly guilty, and left it at that.

  3. I don’t have much of a problem with this dudes conviction. That is mostly because his guilty charges were almost all about invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence or versions of hindering prosecution. Those are crimes, most of which have nothing to do with hate or gay snugglebunnies freaking out immature jerks.

    The charges are here.

    Some of the invasion of privacy charges related to sexual orientation, so maybe somebody could make a case those are piling on or relate to “hate” instead of just being a plain old crime. But he was acquitted of most of Bias Intimidation charges. I don’t have a problem with the law making a point of saying its wrong to target groups for violence and intimidation is wrong. To just add the classic parts of this kind of argument. Its legal to hate, its legal to tell people how much you hate something ( paging westboro church douchebags) but when you commit a crime that is not legal (obviously) and motive always matters.

  4. Did he or did he not spy on the kid? Did he or did he not manipulate the evidence after the kid’s suicide? He did? Then he’s guilty.

    But I suppose the more relevant question is one of what you’d think if your roommate was secretly taping you hooking up with somebody you found attractive then broadcasting that to the larger world, and then destroying some of the evidence of having done so after people figure out what’s happening. Would you laugh it off as childhood hijinks?

    • Sam, I am in no way saying the whole incident should have been “laughed off.” I think it should have been treated with the utmost seriousness by the Rutgers administration. I question whether prosecuting Ravi for a hate crime was the meet thing to do, for the reasons I laid out in the original post, fleshed out nicely by others in the follow-up comments.

  5. I think it is great b/c it shows how moronic hate crime laws are and how they will be used in situations which are not appropriate. Keep up the good work liberals.

    • We weren’t on that jury. We weren’t in the courtroom.

      This I will say about all who think Hate Crimes are beyond the pale: do you really want our justice system not to consider bigotry an aggravating factor? It seems to me those who want to decide what’s appropriate and what’s not have a soft spot in their hearts for bigotry and consider it not an aggravating, but a mitigating factor.

      • Blaise:

        “It seems to me those who want to decide what’s appropriate and what’s not have a soft spot in their hearts for bigotry and consider it not an aggravating, but a mitigating factor.”

        Nice try but it is rather pathetic to try and insinuate there is some ulterior motive instead of addressing what I said. Surely you can do better than that. Not to mention that one of the the best men at my wedding was my gay friend, so fish you for suggesting that I’m a bigot without any knowledge of me.

        I think Russell covers very well why the use of hate crime laws weren’t appropriate here. However, many DAs in an attempt to look tough on the crime du jour and curry favor with voters will be happy to up charge crimes. It is funny how liberals usually decry that sort of prosecutorial discretion unless it benefits them.

        • I’m not insinuating anything. Don’t you think bigotry is an aggravating factor? Who gets to decide?

      • You’ve hit the nail square on the head. My issues with hate crimes legislation is that it should be taken as an aggravating factor, and not as a separate offense. Same issue I have with drunk driving laws.
        However, the state law was sufficient in this case.
        • Invasion of Privacy, with the purpose to intimidate Tyler Clementi because of sexual orientation: GUILTY

        The open end is that there is no act other than intimidation involved.
        Usually, these type of statutes are geared toward some predicate offense; as with identity theft goes fraud, and with defamation goes extortion, etc.
        Maybe that’s in the caselaw from the state, but I see no specific demand toward Clementi.

  6. Clearly Ravi is being punished for the consequences of his actions (Clementi’s death) rather than for the actions themselves. But this isn’t unusual, really. Say, two people have way too much to drink at a party are reckless enough to drive home, and blow through a red light.

    Jones: the intersection is completely empty, but he’s stopped by a nearby cop. DUI
    Smith: another car has to swerve to avoid him, hits another car, and causes a fatality. Vehicular homicide.

    Same criminal behavior, different consequences, different charges, very different punishments.

    • At least part of the issue, for me, is that the link between Ravi’s actions and the suicide seems to be strained. The original story we heard, where there was a closet and an internet broadcast and a suicide as a result of these things… I actually would have found this to be a righteous result. But with the additional context in the New Yorker article, it’s far less clear to me.

      (That having been said, Ravi has been his own worst enemy here with the constant lying and deception afterwards – even apart from the tampering. And he was offered a rather favorable plea arrangement, which he declined.)

  7. I had a longer comment written out upthread that was eaten by my wireless signal.
    The short version:
    Invasion of privacy laws are a lot different from one another. Indiana’s is for violations of protection orders, while Wisconsin’s looks to be tailored to changing room spy cams.
    In this case, the state law was sufficient.
    There were no tangibles at issue here. It’s not an extortion effort. It’s not defamation, because the content is truthful.
    Establishing proximate cause would likely pose an issue. It depends a lot on the caselaw from the state.

  8. It is great to hear such unbiased analysis. It seems everyone is on such a witch hunt. What could Ravi said or done to absolve himself of “hating gays”–the whole nation was/is crying for him to be burned at the stake. My guess he is actually someone who either already does support gay rights or would as he matured and became politically aware. His tweets were just not the tweets of hate–and seem pretty normal for a young straight “dude”. Everyone keeps ascribing the worst meaning and motive to every one of them and take them out of context to make headlines.

    I also think given the right “interest element” he would very likely have used his geeky webcam on a hetero couple. What if his roommate bought a supermodel in or a 45 year old “cougar”? Or a porn star someone recognized from the net? In fact, I bet they would have watched more and snickered and whispered just as much or more. The fact that “gay” is lumped in with said “interest element” is a social issue and Ravi should not be our scapegoat.

    As for “tampering with evidence”, can you blame him? These folks want his head on a platter because they cannot separate his POTENTIAL role in clementi’s suicide from the myriad much larger factors that are at play when an individual chooses to kill themself.

    College kids play pranks and can be pretty rough.

    • Exactly, if Tyler had been hetro this would have been laughed off as a prank but b/c Tyler was gay and they are the new victim class Ravi he had to be made an example of.

      • Why would spying on somebody’s most intimate moments and obstruction of justice be “laughed off” if the couple being filmed was straight? Wouldn’t this kid still have been prosecuted for those crimes?

        Incidentally, it seems that gays are simultaneously just like us when it comes to prosecuting us and an entirely different species when it comes to marriage. Fancy that.

        • “Why would spying on somebody’s most intimate moments and obstruction of justice be “laughed off” if the couple being filmed was straight?”

          There are terabytes of pop-culture media devoted to “spying on somebody’s most intimate moments” and playing it off as a laugh.

  9. There are a few factors:
    1. Ravi had a horrible attorney. Ravi could have taken a plea deal with 600 hours of community service and therapy, and TURNED IT DOWN. Now he faces prison and deportation.
    2. That Ravi’s attorney (or Ravi himself) was so certain that he would ‘never’ get convicted…is very telling of the state of how we view gay/lesbian bullying. I don’t think he genuinely saw his actions as a big deal…even “after” charges were made.
    3. Being gay, and understanding how horrible this situation was – Clemente requested a room change, had to check computers to make sure he wasn’t being recorded, etc. I think a better solution would be institutional changes to university policies. Ravi was one person, but one person alone didn’t watch those videos or participate in the harassing behavior. Maybe this will get some to take it seriously.

  10. Doesn’t everyone here remember college? We were all assholes in college, who drank too much, lived, at best, semi-disciplined lives, and respected no ones’ privacy. I read the New Yorker article, as well, (it was excellent), and it’s clear that Ravi was shallow, and narcissistic, and a jerk. But I read nothing that suggested that he bore Clemente any ill will, or tried to do anything malicious. He was acting like a 19-year old.

    My problem is with the selective, retroactive prosecution. We are saddened by Clemente’s suicide, and feel like justice demands that someone be blamed. And, really, Ravi is the only candidate. If Clemente had successfully transferred to different dorm room, and still lived today, Ravi would likely had been subjected to nothing more onerous than a dressing down from his dorm’s resident advisor. A suicide was not a remotely predictable outcome of anything that Ravi did; it seems highly dubious from reading about the case that it had anything to do with it.

    We all want, at a gut level, for there to be “justice” in the universe. And in this case, one kid was a jerk, and the other seems likeble, and the likable one is dead. But the prosecution and conviction seem outsized for the actual behavior that ostensibly prompted it.

    • I remember college, and I don’t remember anyone peeping on me, videotaping me, broadcasting me, spying on me, or otherwise attempting to share my sexlife with the world at large.

      • Read the New Yorker article, if you can. Ravi did not “broadcast” Clemente, or share his sex life with the world. I’m just saying that the prosecution seems outsized for Ravi’s actual behavior: it seems like a retroactive attempt to blame him for the tragic outcome.

    • What we have here is a situation where some teenager got hazed so bad he killed himself, and we’re trying to be a society that offers a more evolved response than “learn to deal, faggot”.

      • DD:

        I don’t think Tyler ever said exactly why he jumped so it seems like a stretch to blame it solely on what Ravi did.

    • In a just society, all prosecution is “retroactive.” We wouldn’t want prosecutors to “proactively” prosecute people for things they haven’t done yet.

      Yes, it was Ravi’s bad luck that he happened to invade the privacy of someone who went on to commit suicide. If he’d invaded the privacy of a less vulnerable person, he probably never would have been charged because the victim would have gone on with his life and nobody would have found out about the crime. If Ravi had been especially lucky, the victim never would have figured out that Ravi broke the law.

      That’s the thing about breaking the law: Whether you get caught often comes down to dumb luck. That’s not an indictment of the criminal justice system. That’s a reason to think twice about committing crimes.

      There’s nothing unjust about the fact that Ravi’s crime came to light because of factors outside of his control. Once he was under investigation, the one thing Ravi could control was whether to own up to his crimes. Nobody forced him to cover up the evidence or conspire with his friend to mislead investigators.

  11. Yeah, I’m having trouble with it too, so much so that I’m seeking out others who are also having trouble.

    The main thing I want to know is this: Why is Dharun being punished and not Tyler’s mother?!

    Tyler texted a friend just days before going to Rutgers that his mom “basically rejected” him. Don’t you think that had a teeeeensy bit to do with the suicide? This rejection by his mother happened only a few weeks before he jumped from the bridge. As someone who was rejected by his parents for his actions, I know that it’s devastating. The embarrassment of Ravi’s stupid and unthinking actions is clearly what pushed Tyler over the edge, but making an example of Ravi, and not the mother, is just wrong– or so I think.

  12. Hmmm, interesting comments. I’ve never been to this website before, but my mom’s from Brookline and I went to college in Boston. (Where, I’m glad to say, we didn’t attempt to broadcast each other having sex via spycams while also posting “keep the gays away”.)

    The most frustrating thing I’ve encountered when reading about this case is the ENDLESS speculation, and attempts to compare and contrast it with completely imaginary situations. (“What if the visitor had been female?” / “What if Clemente hadn’t committed suicide?” / “What if Mr. Ravi weren’t in the U.S. on a greencard?”/ “What if there were a drunk driver who…?”) All of that steers people away from looking at what Mr. Ravi’s violations actually WERE…which included destroying evidence, lying to police during an investigation, and coaching a witness to lie during interrogation. Hello; He’s responsible for those things. And no, I don’t want a visitor in our country to remain after pulling that very very serious cr@p.

    I find the situation diminished somewhat when it is categorized as “bullying”. It’s simply illegal behavior, and Mr. Ravi was and is an adult. I wish people would stop trying to infantilize him.

    I am at a loss as to what his sentencing would be. I’d say, two years prison time with no time off for anything, and not served in some type of country club atmosphere. Then, deportation. I see nothing positive he’s given the country, but a lot of ill.

    • Dammit! I guess I cannot cut + paste here : (

      I meant to type <>

  13. ” I am at a loss as to what his sentencing SHOULD be”

    (Now I am exhausted.)

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