How Should Online Bullying Be Prosecuted?

Former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi faced up to 10 years in prison for spying on his roommate with a webcam. The roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide after Ravi broadcast footage of his encounter with another man on the Internet. On Monday, a New Jersey Superior Court judge sentenced Ravi to 30 days in jail, plus three years of probation. Audie Cornish talks with legal expert Emily Bazelon about the case.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The trial of Dharun Ravi has raised questions about the appropriate punishment for hate crimes and whether a potential 10-year jail sentence for Ravi was unnecessarily harsh.

Emily Bazelon of Slate was one of the people who made that very argument. In the New York Times back in March, she wrote that New Jersey should narrow its civil rights laws, quote, "so that he's not the first of many stupid but nonviolent young people who pay a too heavy price for our fears about how kids use technology to be cruel."

Emily Bazelon, welcome to the program.

EMILY BAZELON: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: So, Emily, it's a 30-day prison sentence, plus three years probation, a fine, community service. Is that the appropriate punishment, in your eyes, and what do you think factored into this particular sentence?

BAZELON: I think it is an appropriate punishment. It was very lucky for Dharun Ravi, about as merciful as Judge Berman could have been. And I think what factored into Judge Berman's decision not to impose a long prison sentence were Ravi's youth, the fact that he had no prior record and also the fact that the webcam spying he's guilty of, while reprehensible, did not involve a crime of violence.

CORNISH: At the same time, you had a lot of gay rights advocates having this debate about what would be an appropriate sentence. Some advocated for a light sentence, feeling that a long one would cause a backlash against using hate crimes in cases like these, and then some groups considered 30 days not quite long enough.

BAZELON: And I really understand that. I mean, the underlying conduct here - these are serious instances of bad behavior and absolutely things that we want to discourage college students from doing. But I've been really impressed by the debate in the gay rights community because I think there was also a willingness to think about how it felt to be Dharun Ravi with this incredible onslaught of media attention and condemnation.

CORNISH: So what kind of message does this send to prosecutors, generally, when it comes to pursuing cases that land at the nexus of bullying and bias intimidation or, as we know them, hate crimes?

BAZELON: I think it's really a mixed message. On the one hand, I'm sure the prosecutors here are frustrated because they were very fair to Mr. Ravi in the sense that they offered him a plea deal with no jail time and he didn't take it. So it was because of his refusal of the plea deal that the case went to trial. On the other hand, I think, generally, we're at risk right now of criminalizing a lot of nonviolent bullying behavior by teenagers that really just should not rise to the level of people going to prison.

CORNISH: How should a judge or jury, in your opinion, draw the line between what is a kid being a kid or a prank versus a kid committing a serious crime?

BAZELON: Because it's such a hard question to answer, I'm really drawn to the line that previous New Jersey cases have drawn and that Judge Berman cited today. What Judge Berman said was that, in the other cases with long sentences that involve hate crimes in New Jersey, they've been about violence. They've been people picking up a crowbar and beating someone. And those are instances where you can see the hate crime as being tied to truly dangerous behavior.

And, while the complicated thing about the webcam spying that Ravi was convicted of is its potential link to Tyler Clementi's suicide, Ravi was never charged with that suicide and, in fact, we just don't know how linked those two events were.

CORNISH: Emily, the New Jersey gay rights group Garden State Equality issued a statement that Ravi's sentence was too light, saying that this was not merely a childhood prank gone awry and this was not a crime without bias.

And I do have a question about tough sentencing from that perspective. I mean, how, essentially, does a society convey culturally that something is a serious crime and not have tougher sentencing?

BAZELON: If there's a missed opportunity here, that's what it is. The idea that we have to use prison time in order to say that it is not acceptable to be hateful toward gay people in the same way that it's not acceptable to be hateful to other minorities.

And gay people absolutely should have that same protection, but the problem with long prison sentences to send messages is that there's a person who has to bear the brunt of the message. We can't spread that out in any way and so that's the hesitation I have here.

CORNISH: Emily Bazelon writes and edits legal coverage for Slate magazine and she's writing a book about bullying. Emily, thank you.

BAZELON: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.