The Rutgers Verdict And The Future Of Hate Crimes

Former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi, accused of using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate's liaisons, has been convicted charges of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz speaks to University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron about the case and what it means for the future of harassment law.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

To a different trial now, this one in New Jersey where Joe Clementi, father of Tyler Clementi, spoke to the press assembled outside the courtroom yesterday.

JOE CLEMENTI: The trial was painful for us, as it would be for any parent who must sit and listen to people talk about bad and inappropriate things that were done to their child.

RAZ: Tyler Clementi was, of course, the gay Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate used a webcam to spy on his love life. That roommate, Dharun Ravi, has now been convicted on charges of invasion of privacy and biased intimidation. He faces up to 10 years in prison and possible deportation since he's not a U.S. citizen.

Danielle Citron is a law professor at the University of Maryland, specializing in online harassment. And she says it's important to remember that Dharun Ravi was not convicted of causing Tyler Clementi's suicide.

DANIELLE CITRON: What we have here is the punishment of a privacy invasion, right? The intrusion of his seclusion, the taping or streaming of what seems sort of private activity. And we always think of sexual activities being so private. Then on top of that, we're layering sort of a sentencing enhancement on the basis of intimidating someone because they're gay or because of a protected class.

RAZ: So he was not accused of a hate crime necessarily. He was - and he wasn't convicted of that.

CITRON: My understanding is that the sentence enhancement under state law for biased intimidation. So he was found guilty of intending to intimidate Tyler Clementi on the basis of his homosexuality as well as that Tyler Clementi reasonably perceived himself as being targeted because he was gay.

RAZ: This kind of invasion of privacy wasn't a crime. I mean, it wasn't really even possible just a few years ago because you couldn't set up a webcam in someone's room.

CITRON: Right. I mean, so that is the privacy invasion that's deemed a crime under New Jersey law. But you're absolutely right that the kind of wiretapping that we're thinking about was something that people with really sophisticated technology, you know, had to be involved, or it wasn't something that would be the ordinary teenager would have access to. And now these technologies are so pervasive. I mean, we can tape people on our cell phones.

We can invade people's privacies by putting a cell phone under someone's skirt. You know, it's often happens in the subway that people are spied on without their ever having knowing them and very compromising, you know, places they you would consider very private so that your right that it puts in the hands of so many people technologies in which they can intrude on people's private spaces in ways that law now criminalizes.

RAZ: Well, what kind of precedent do you think this case will set for future online harassment cases?

CITRON: I'm of two minds on this. I was really conflicted when I heard the verdict yesterday. Because on the one hand, I think it sends a powerful message that we don't think it's acceptable to target someone because they're gay or because they're women or for some other protected class. But I think on the other hand, it could have a backlash effect, because so much of what I'm hearing is that, look, he's getting punished for being a jerk.

If the sentence in this case is pretty outsized, like more than, let's say, a year in prison or two, then I think there'll be a lot of public resistance to using these laws, especially because what you had were two college students, which is many people are saying, this was just like two people who misunderstood each other. And it really wasn't biased. I mean, this is some of what you hear from people that it wasn't a biased crime.

And I think if he gets a sentence that it seems unfair, then I think prosecutors will be more reluctant to use them if there's a lot of public resistance to the sentencing. And that would, by my light, be a huge shame because we see so much, what I think of, is bigoted harassment online that is under-enforced, woefully under-enforced. And it would be a shame for a case that's so borderline to be what we think of as the case, and then there's going to be all sorts of backtrack. You know, people don't want to then use laws in case of where I think they should.

RAZ: That's Danielle Citron. She's a law professor at the University of Maryland, talking about the Tyler Clementi case. That ruling was handed down yesterday. Danielle, thank you so much.

CITRON: Oh, you're welcome.

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