When I recently Googled “Dharun Ravi supporters,” I was shocked that not a single hit appeared that indicated any type of support for the 20-year-old accused of “15 counts of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and tampering with evidence and a witness.” While it is certainly tragic that Ravi’s roommate Tyler Clementi felt so humiliated that he took his own life by jumping from the George Washington Bridge, it is not fair to make a scapegoat of Ravi for using his webcam as a “bias intimidation” mechanism or “invasion of privacy” tool.
The media has utterly failed to take into account the order of events that led to Clementi’s death. Mainstream media organizations have treaded lightly over this delicate case because Clementi’s death inspired a wave of successful anti-harassment and gay-awareness campaigns that led to the creation of a widely supported piece of congressional legislation called the “Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act of 2011.” Therefore, any defense of Ravi could be misconstrued as anti-gay or pro-harassment.
But we were all once 18-year-old college freshmen. I know that if an unknown older person, regardless of his sexual orientation, was spending time in my bedroom when I was not there, I too would have been skeptical about whether my belongings were safe. How would you feel if you knew that you couldn’t enter your own bedroom because someone you got a “bad vibe” from (Ravi’s words) was inside your room?
Anyone who remembers the 1999 movie “American Pie” would know that high school and college kids can use webcams for unsavory purposes: In the film, the hot Czech exchange student Nadia changes her clothing while a webcam records the entire act. (I will always be scarred by this scene, as I awkwardly watched “American Pie” for the first time with my parents … an experience I will never forget!) Today, nearly all computers have built-in cameras, so it should not be surprising that students use them for keeping tabs on one another.
There are also cultural factors at play that may have caused Ravi to lack maturity or compassion regarding his roommate’s sexuality. At age 18, many Americans are not exposed to homosexual culture or sexual diversity. This may have been compounded by the fact that Ravi was born in India and raised in a household that may not have exposed him to non-traditional lifestyles. But in his interrogation, Ravi came across as genuine and articulate, and not the homophobe that he has been portrayed as by the media. (I find it to be appalling that Ravi had no lawyer present and that his interrogation video is publicly available.)
Furthermore, it appears that Ravi genuinely tried to apologize and make amends with his roommate after learning of his intent to take his own life. He wrote to Clementi, “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.”
Finding Ravi guilty, despite his reputation already being slaughtered by the media, would be reprehensible. One life has already been lost. There is no reason for a second young person, whose life is already in shambles, to be sentenced to prison or found guilty for a situation that may have represented some level of immaturity, but certainly not a crime.
Stephen Robert Morse is a Tow-Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York. He founded MyTwoCensus.com and has contributed to a diverse list of publications ranging from Mother Jones to Al Jazeera English. From 2009 to 2011, he was an Erasmus Mundus scholar, sponsored by the European Union, studying journalism, media, and globalization. Oh yeah, and one time he accidentally started a multi-year congressional investigation by catching members of the New Black Panther Party on tape, blocking a polling place in Philly.