Webcam Spy-Suicide Case Stirs National Debate on Hate-Crime Laws
There was a verdict in the wrenching Rutgers webcam spying case, but no resolution to a broader question that hovered over it: To what extent are hate crime laws a help or a hindrance in the pursuit of justice?
The gist of the verdict: Former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was convicted Friday of anti-gay intimidation for using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate's love life. The roommate, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, threw himself to his death off a bridge not long after realizing he'd been watched.
While disavowing any sense of celebration, some gay-rights leaders commended the outcome as a vindication of hate crimes legislation.
"We do believe this verdict sends the important message that a 'kids will be kids' defense is no excuse to bully another student," said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality.
In other quarters, there was dismay at the use of New Jersey's hate crimes law in the case, and at the verdict that could saddle 20-year-old Ravi with a prison sentence of 10 years or more despite a dearth of evidence that he hated gays.
"It illustrates why hate crime laws are not a good idea," said James Jacobs, a law professor at New York University. "They were passed to be admired and not to be used."
A longtime gay rights activist in New York, Bill Dobbs, also was troubled by the case.
"As hate crime prosecutions mount, the problems with these laws are becoming more obvious ... how they compromise cherished constitutional principles," Dobbs said. "Now a person gets tried not just for misdeeds, but for who they are, what they believe, what their character is."
Hate crime laws have been an American institution for decades, and are on the books in 45 states. Generally, they provide enhanced penalties for crimes committed out of racial, ethnic or religious basis, while the laws in about 30 states, including New Jersey, also cover offenses based on sexual orientation.
In 2009, Congress followed suit, expanding federal hate-crimes legislation to cover crimes motivated by bias against gays, lesbians and transgender people. The bill is known as the Matthew Shepard Act, in honor of the gay college student brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998.
According to the latest FBI statistics, 1,528 people were targeted by anti-gay hate crimes in 2010 - accounting for almost 19 percent of all reported hate crimes.
Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights legal group, said the Ravi verdict underscored the value of hate crime legislation.
"Hate crime laws are public statements that our government and our society recognize the deep wounds inflicted when violence is motivated by prejudice and hate," said the group's deputy legal director, Hayley Gorenberg. "The verdict ... demonstrates that the jurors understood that bias crimes do not require physical weapons like a knife in one's hand."
Asked about the debate over hate crime laws, Gorenberg stressed the need to consider the plight of victimized gays and lesbians, especially young people.
"If this is the case that propels us to wholesale reconsidering of hate crime laws, we're missing the boat," she said. "I'd urge people to rethink a different question - what's going on in our schools and society such that we have young people experiencing invasions of their privacy, harassment, discrimination and despair, sometimes ending in tragedy."
Some conservative legal groups campaigned vigorously against the Matthew Shepard Act, dubbing it a "thought crimes" bill that would potentially criminalize anti-gay speech as well as anti-gay violence.
"These laws serve only one purpose - they criminalize thoughts and beliefs that are not considered politically correct," said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund.
"There's a clash and a conflict - I don't know that it's here yet, but it's coming - with freedom of expression and freedom of religion," Stanley said.
Jacobs, the NYU professor, has depicted hate crime laws as unnecessary and counterproductive, albeit popular among certain politicians.
"It's one thing to pass them, and everyone is proud to say they're opposed to hate and bigotry," he said. "Yet occasionally these laws are used in cases like this (the Ravi trial)... What he did was immature, stupid, wrong, but to make this a poster case for hate crimes shows the weakness, the whole misapplication of the idea."
For the American Civil Liberties Union, which strives to defend both freedom of expression and gay rights, hate crimes legislation can raise some complicated questions.
Chris Anders, the ALCU's senior legislative counsel for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, said the organization supports aspects of federal hate crimes policy that allow for federal intervention in cases where state or local officials are deemed to be remiss.
However, he said the ACLU has been concerned about the possibility that hate crimes trials could make use of evidence not directly related to the crime - a defendant's past comments or reading material, for example.
Anders said the ALCU withdrew its support for the Matthew Shepard Act because it did not include certain language addressing this concern.
"In our view, hate crimes statutes focused on violent acts can be constitutional, whereas those focused on discriminatory speech are not," Anders said.
He recalled that during debate on the Matthew Shepard Act, many Republicans assailed it and many Democrats lauded it.
"Most of these things are much more nuanced, and it's hard to get people to focus on that," Anders said.