A New Jersey court found 20-year-old Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi guilty of committing a hate crime against his college roommate, 18-year old Tyler Clementi. Clementi and Ravi were freshmen sharing a dormitory room. Ravi spied on Clementi via a webcam set up in the room at least twice while Clementi entertained a male guest. Tyler committed suicide two days after discovering that Ravi had hidden a webcam and invited other friend to watch. Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation and the invasion of privacy. Bias intimidation is a hate crime and carries a possible 10-year sentence. Ravi also faces possible deportation after serving his time.
The case is unusual for a number of reasons and it is certain to generate debate and discussion about the nature of hate crimes. The term “hate crime” was coined in the 1980s by journalists and policy advocates to address a series of crimes committed against Jews, Asian, and African Americans. Hate crimes target their victims because of their race, religion, ethnicity or other distinguishing characteristic.
The savage torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998 focused attention on hate crimes directed against gay people. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were convicted of felony murder in the case. McKinney and Henderson specifically targeted Shepard because he was gay. In 1998 Wyoming there were no hate law statutes in Wyoming. Since than time 49 states have hate law statutes. Hate crimes refer to crimes that are bias-motivated violence. Hate crimes fall into a different legal category that hate speech. 49 states have hate crime laws where as hate speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution that ensures the right of free speech. Hate crime implies violence.
McKinnley and Henderson physically restrained, tortured, and murdered Shepard. The Ravi case is considerably different. Ravi’s defense attorneys didn’t deny the facts of the case but they argued that it was a stupid prank rather than a malicious act intended to inflict harm and damage. The issue to be discussed will certainly concern the question of what actions constitute a hate crime.
The court’s ruling contains a number of issues: (1) How to determine Ravi’s intentions. Hate crimes imply malicious intent directed targeted an individual because of their membership in a particular group. Is there a difference between embarrassing and intimidating someone? (2) There was no physical evidence of harm or violence. Clementi’s suicide was not considered in the trial. The bulk of the evidence was electronic; emails and twitter messages.
Rutgers University issued a statement after the verdict that emphasized the importance of mutual respect and civility but it didn’t address the issue of hate crimes in a clear and unambiguous manner. While the sentiment of the statement is certainly correct, is acting with a lack of civility or respect the same as committing a hate crime?