Does the Punishment Fit the Crime in the Rutgers Webcam Case?

Dharun Ravi faces up to 10 years in jail and possible deportation.

The unprecedented verdict in the Rutgers webcam case has unleashed all manner of ethical dilemmas, none of which can be neatly resolved. The most pressing is this: Does Dharun Ravi deserve to go to prison for up to 10 years? Surprisingly, I am of two minds.

A New Jersey jury Friday found Ravi guilty of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and other charges for having used a webcam to spy on his roommate’s sexual encounter with another man. After learning of the incident, Tyler Clementi, 18, killed himself in September 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

Ravi, now 20, faces up to a decade in jail and deportation to his native India. Sentencing is set for May 21.

When I first heard the verdict, I was elated. Being out and proud since the age of 17, I viewed it as a victory for every gay kid who had ever been tormented, or worse. Seen through a larger prism, it was a clear warning that there are serious legal consequences for those who make “social media” an oxymoron.

Upon further reflection, however, I began to question my initial reaction. Did the punishment fit the crime? After all, Ravi did not push his roommate off that bridge, did he? Tyler Clementi, obviously a troubled young man, made that tragic decision on his own.

Four days later, I am still struggling to reconcile my feelings. Forthwith, a description of my two minds:

Mind 1: Ravi, like most college freshmen, was young, immature and eager to up his street cred when he tweeted his friends about the video. To him, it probably felt like an episode of Punk’d. His behavior, while thoughtless and destructive, does not warrant up to a decade in jail or deportation. Crack dealers get lesser sentences.

Mind 2: This is a generation that does not take a conscious breath without recording it on some variant of social media. Ravi knew exactly what he was doing. Clearly, he was uncomfortable with Clementi’s sexuality, or he wouldn’t have made him an object of ridicule. Would he have done the same thing to a straight roommate? Doubtful. This was a premeditated hate crime.

Any way you parse it, Ravi outted Tyler Clementi. With obvious exceptions, I consider outting an act of guerilla warfare, particularly when the target is a fragile teenager. Throw in the added stress of living in a dorm—think communal bathrooms—and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

The cruel irony is that Clementi had put in for a new roommate. The crueler irony is that he chose Facebook to announce his planned suicide. In a ghoulish sort of way, it made perfect sense. Since social media had pushed him to the brink, logic demanded that it ‘share’ his imminent demise.

Dharun Ravi may not have forced Tyler Clementi off the George Washington Bridge, but he made it a lot easier for him to take that fatal leap. In or out of prison, in this country or in any other, Ravi will have that on his conscience for the rest of his life.

And it will take more than 140 characters to ease that kind of torment.