Columnists » Grinding The Edge

Why the Ravi-Clementi Trial Has Aroused So Much Interest

by Steve Weinstein
Friday Mar 16, 2012

He's guilty.

After rejecting a plea bargain, Dharun Ravi has been found guilty of a hate crime involving invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with evidence and a witness, and hindering apprehension.

As is well known, Ravi, apparently unhappy with being assigned a gay roommate for his freshman year at Rutgers University, a private university in New Jersey, set up a webcam. He then invited others to watch as Tyler Clementi kissed the other, older man.

What would have been written off as a misguided prank went horribly wrong when Clementi, distraught at such a public humiliation, jumped off the George Washington Bridge, a huge structure that links New Jersey to Manhattan. Ravi left the university and was charged with multiple counts.

A noted immigration attorney told EDGE that Ravi likely faces deportation after serving at least a few years for his crimes. For an excellent quickie breakdown of what the sentence means, legal site Above the Law has a good analysis.

The suicide, perhaps because of the dramatic nature of it, perhaps because this was a college student, perhaps because it happened so near New York City, became a cause celebré. President Obama commented on it, and the New Jersey Legislature hurriedly passed a long-delayed anti-school bullying bill that is the toughest in the nation. It was notably signed into law by Chris Christie, the Republican governor who has his sites set on national office and recently vetoed a marriage-equality bill.

But was the suicide the reason for the media's intense focus on the trial and the conviction, which is dominating news coverage as I write this? I think not.

Rather, it's because the case addresses the cutting-edge issue of a lack of privacy in a cyber-centric world. Any one of us who have ever invited a stranger into our apartment or entered another apartment is the possible victim of such a sting as Ravi set up for Clementi.

The case provided a laser-like focus on how vulnerable we are all in our daily lives to the increased capability of anyone with average computer skills (admittedly, Ravi's were better than average) to set up a webcam; or, for that matter, surreptitiously video from a smart phone or a half-dozen other ways to record an intimate moment.

It's no slam on the tragedy of Clementi's suicide; certainly, such a horrible outcome to Ravi's prank exponentially increased the scrutiny of how such spying can affect the victim. But there's no question that this trial will cause some widespread soul searching about how elastic the concept of "privacy" has become in our electronically saturated culture -- and what we can do to try to protect ourselves.

A commenter in the New York Times' breaking story on the verdict put it well: "We need new law to protect innocent victims and protect our privacy in this era of new technology that now clearly threatens us with a world where we have no choice but to be exposed to this kind of irresponsible behavior."

Or maybe we all need to re-learn what the term "private life" means.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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