Commentary: No Real Clarity After the Rutgers Verdict - Higher Education
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Commentary: No Real Clarity After the Rutgers Verdict

by Emil Guillermo


The Rutgers case involving Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi provides no clarity to anyone except maybe educators.
 
Schools are more than schools, after all. They’re also essentially hotels with lecture halls. Therefore, administrators need to take more control over who rooms with whom and take it seriously. Housing issues are no small thing, with the need for practical systems to deal with roommate complaints and disputes. That means schools also need an ironclad code of conduct for campus life including a tech policy that covers Facebook and Twitter and all the unsocial social networks out there for now and in the future. You can’t just figure your current policies are good enough without a steely-eyed review. Unless the writers of the Constitution wrote your policies, your rules are dated. Rutgers was a warning. To college administrators, new technology means new potential liabilities. Are your endowments exposed?
 
After the Ravi verdict, it’s clear that everyone in an ivory tower needs to start hitting that refresh button.
 
But for the rest of us, the verdict doesn’t end a thing. The debate is only really beginning.
 
What is a hate crime? How did it morph into cyber-bullying? Is bullying just racism without color? What does it take for people to be civil in public or private? Is all this about intimidation, or is it about privacy? And what does free speech have to do with this?
 
It all makes me nostalgic for the days when we had real clarity.
 
In those days, a noose was a noose, a hood was a hood, and a hate crime was a hate crime.
 
Was there ever a doubt in that grand old formula? Add one person of color. One protected minority. Voila. Justice.
 
We know how to fight all that.
 
But in these modern times, the formulas have changed.
 
Now you can have two immature college roommates, one a shy and inexperienced gay, the other an artless, boorish straight. Add a massive dose of technology, a computer, a webcam, and a few Tweets, and what do you get?
 
A jury in New Jersey called it the foundation for a hate crime.
 
I still don’t buy it in the case of Ravi.
 
Sounds to me like the jury is scapegoating Ravi for the death of Tyler Clementi.
 
The humiliation caused by Ravi may have been such that Clementi felt compelled to take his own life. Even the jury doesn’t know for sure. It just felt Clementi “reasonably believed” he was targeted by Ravi.
 
But Ravi didn’t push or suggest to Clementi to jump off a bridge. Ravi isn’t a murderer. He does strike me as a typical unkind, arrogant, privileged kid from the suburbs.
 
Still, you don’t go to jail for that.
 
From the facts, it doesn’t seem like Ravi’s intent on that one night was in seeing his roommate die. He didn’t tweet about his murderous intent. Ravi was just out for some “cool” tech-enabled “fun.”
 
Ravi’s crime ended with the invasion of privacy.
 
And for that he should be punished appropriately.
 
But somehow, the jury went beyond that.
 
Though it was made clear that Clementi’s death was irrelevant in this case and was not to be made an official part of the trial, comments by witnesses were allowed into the record.
 
For whatever despicable thing done by Ravi, there was already stuff going on inside of Clementi’s head well before the webcam incident. In the broader sense, the perp wasn’t Ravi, but all the other people who made up Clementi’s world and made him feel the way he did. The school? The boyfriend? The family? Society in general?
 
The jury seems to have made a leap and conveniently heaped it all on Ravi.
 
Does that sound like justice to you?
 
In this coarse world where the edgy and spiky is considered hip, cool and revered in our youthful pop culture, we seem to have lost our taste for a little basic kindness and mutual respect.
 
Throwing the book at Ravi and destroying his life won’t bring back Clementi.
 
Neither will it help restore civility to our society.
 
Emil Guillermo writes at www.aaldef.org/blog and at www.amok.com

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