Last week in New Jersey, Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate broadcast a live feed of him engaging in sexual acts with another man. The roommate, Dharun Ravi and a friend Molly Wei, both freshmen, are being charged with invasion of privacy. But many people are calling for the prosecutor to charge them with a hate crime, which would double the maximum possible sentence.
Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s leading gay advocacy group issued a statement calling the suicide “one of the most unconscionable, hate-related deaths of a student in the history of the State of New Jersey,” adding, “we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others’ lives as a sport. As this case makes its way through the legal system, we can only hope the alleged perpetrators receive the maximum possible sentence.”
According to news reports, Ravi tweeted on September 19: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
Forbes magazine reports, “Ravi invited other friends to watch the stream on iChat, and planned a second viewing on September 21st when Clementi again indicated he’d like the room to himself for a few hours, tweeting that day, ‘Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.’”
Clementi found out his roommate was filming him the first time, and seems to have avoided being filmed the second time. Posts by “cit2mo” on a gay message forum are being attributed to Clementi. The posts complain about a roommate spying on him with a webcam, and register his distress over the incident and his feelings that he was being targeted for being gay.
On September 22, Clementi posted on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” and then took his own life.
The results are tragic; the roommate, decidedly an ass. But does what Ravi and Wei did constitute a hate crime?
“That couldn’t be a hate crime. It’s not a crime,” said James Jacobs, a professor at NYU Law School and author of “Hate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics,” in a short interview with The Daily Caller.
As Laurie L. Levenson points out in the New York Times, “It is really hard to hold someone responsible for another person’s suicide” since the person did not directly inflict any violence on the victim.
Indeed, Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute points out that it wouldn’t “trigger the federal hate crimes law, because they didn’t do anything violent.” The federal law, named the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” (HCPA), only covers “bias-motivated violence.”
Professor Robert Volk of Boston University’s law school disagrees. “Yeah, it’s a hate crime,” he told TheDC. “I mean, of course it is. It’s hateful and a hate crime, no question in my mind. I mean, by all accounts the kid was fine, until this happened, until he was filmed. It’s so cruel. So I have no doubt but that it was a hate crime.”
But he does acknowledge that as far as the law goes, “it’s hard to say whether it’s a hate crime legally in that the individuals involved did not kill the guy, but by their actions they may have caused him to kill himself. So whether that falls within the definition of a hate crime, hard to know.”
New Jersey’s hate crime laws are much broader than the federal law. They cover “bias intimidation,” such that crimes committed “with a purpose to intimidate an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.”
Steven Goldstein, chair and CEO of Garden State Equality told TheDC, “New Jersey’s hate crimes law includes crimes against people based on their sexual orientation, and it also applies to crimes of invasion of privacy. It could not be clearer, that New Jersey’s hate crimes law applies to these alleged perpetrators.”
But Bader points out that a criminal prosecution for a hate crime is a difficult process because “[e]ven if you sort of have a sense of what [the perpetrator’s] motivation is…in a criminal prosecution you have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”