In Fall 2010, Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi became dorm mates as freshmen at Rutger’s University. Weeks later, Tyler committed suicide, jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Several days before, Dharun and another student had used a webcam to watch Tyler, unbeknownst to him, in an embrace with another young man. The story blew up, making national and international news, with outlets reporting that a sex tape had been posted on the internet (there was no sex observed and no sex tape made or posted to the internet). Dharun and the other student, Molly Wei, became a source of outrage for online commentary being called murderers and tormentors. Some groups called for life imprisonment of Dharun.
The question is: you film your neighbor, expose his sexual preference, and he takes his own life. Is this electronic bullying? Was this a hate crime? Was this immature decision making with a tragic consequence or a criminal action? Dharun’s defense says, “my defendant was 19, his actions were juvenile, not criminal, he shouldn’t go away for 10 years.” In college, you are “an adult,” you are responsible for yourself and your actions, accountability is necessary. The actions of Dharun were unacceptable. And yet, you are dealing with a brain that is not yet fully developed. The prefrontal cortex, charged with cognitive analysis, abstract thought and the moderation of “correct” behavior, is not fully developed until near the age of 25. This is region of the brain which, when fully matured, allows an individual the ability to exercise “good judgement” when facing difficult decisions. This is not, in any way, to move away from the fact of the suicide of a young man and his devastated family.
A brilliant article and must-read by Ian Parker in the New Yorker explores the entire story, from both boy’s backgrounds and families and the event in question, to the nature of electronic bullying, juvenile development, and hate crimes. A shorter summary can be found in the New York Times article ‘New Light on Days Before Rutgers Student’s Death.’
Dharun Ravi is facing up to to 10 years in prison on charges of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation (hate crimes) and hindering apprehension.
On one side you have, “I wasn’t trying to be malicious, I was just fooling around.” On the other, “Anti-gay actions like this are not fooling around, they are hate crimes and should be punished severely.” Perhaps the best punishment for Dharun’s negligence and his perceived “immunity” would be requiring him to do restorative justice work and educate people about the homophobia and the dangers of bullying?