11/7/2010

By Meg Slachetka

On September 22, Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, took his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.  Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Molly Wei, a friend of Ravi’s from high school, had witnessed a sexual encounter between Clementi and another man using Ravi’s webcam accessed remotely from Wei’s computer.  After watching the initial video, Ravi tweeted to let his friends know that he had witnessed Clementi kissing a man.  Two days later, Ravi tried to again use the camera and Wei’s computer to catch Clementi in a sexual situation.  This time, he tweeted his plans ahead of time so his friends could watch the encounter using iChat as well.  Although his second attempt to broadcast Clementi was unsuccessful, Clementi found out about both incidents and posted on a gay message board that he didn’t think there was anything he could do about the incident, other than request a new roommate.  Clementi also reportedly filed a complaint with his resident advisor before committing suicide.  He was 18 years old.

In the aftermath of Clementi’s suicide, Ravi and Wei have been charged with third- and four-degree invasion of privacy, which carry a maximum sentence of five years.  Prosecutors are considering filing additional charges under New Jersey’s bias crime laws, which carry a maximum sentence of ten years for a second-degree bias crime.  However, prosecutors have said there may not be enough evidence to file bias crime charges against Ravi and Wei.  Ravi is free on $25,000 bail while Wei was freed on her own recognizance.

A person can be found guilty of a bias crime in New Jersey if the jury agrees that he or she committed a crime because of a belief that the victim is a member of a protected class, such as being gay or being a racial minority.  The question is whether the defendant’s actions were motivated by bias.  Ravi’s actions, including his tweets that Clementi was “making out with a dude” and “it’s happening again” do not provide sufficient evidence of his intent.  Furthermore, no evidence has yet been discovered that Wei allowed Ravi to use her computer based on any anti-gay prejudice.  It’s possible that Wei was not even aware that Ravi was accessing his webcam from her computer.  Of course, it’s also possible that the entire incident was Wei’s idea.  Without evidence confirming the existence of bias, the media witch hunt against both Ravi and Wei is misplaced and even cruel.

Officials at Rutgers University said they were investigating the allegations as a violation of the university’s student code of conduct policies.  Earlier this week, the Star-Ledger reported that both Ravi and Wei had withdrawn from the university “because of concerns for [their] safety.”  Rutgers will not confirm this report, claiming privacy concerns.  If the students return to Rutgers, they could face disciplinary action.  Under Rutgers’ student code of conduct, if a student records images of anyone on university property in a private situation without the person’s knowledge, the student could be expelled.

Federal civil rights statutes and most state laws do not expressly address discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  As a result, LGBT students and parents often have limited legal recourse in the event of bullying or harassment.  New Jersey is one of only ten states with a law that addresses discrimination, harassment, or bullying of students based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  

Federal legislators have announced several pieces of legislation to combat harassment and discrimination.  Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has introduced the Student Nondiscrimination Act, which would prohibit harassment and discrimination in public schools based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  It would also allow victims of discrimination to sue school districts directly in the event that they suffer discrimination or harassment. However, this legislation does not address harassment or discrimination at the college level.  Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has said that he will soon introduce legislation to better protect college students from harassment and bullying.  His legislation will reportedly require colleges that receive federal student aid to adopt a code of conduct that bans bullying and harassment, have a policy to deal with bullying complaints, ensure that cyber bullying is recognized as a form of harassment, and create a competitive grant program to help colleges prevent bullying and harassment.  Lautenberg has said he plans to introduce this legislation when the Senate reconvenes in November.