Lesson of Rutgers case: Online actions carry consequences

USA TODAY, March 19, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

The conviction of ex-Rutgers student Dharun Ravi sends a message to social media users that actions and words played out across the Web could lead to a prison sentence, legal and digital experts say.

Ravi, convicted of invasion of privacy and other charges for electronically spying on his freshman roommate during a gay encounter, could face up to 10 years in prison in a case likely to have lasting implications on how people use the Internet. Some caution that free speech rights on the Web could also be affected.

“It demonstrates that there are consequences for somebody’s use of technology,” said Eric Nemecek, co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Cybercrime Committee. “This should be a cautionary tale for a lot of people. … You often don’t think what you’re doing could lead to criminal prosecution.”

Nemecek said that in Ravi’s case, the jury looked not only at Ravi’s use of the webcam to spy on his roommate but at the Twitter messages he sent to determine his intent — a key factor in deciding whether he committed a bias crime.

The roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide in September 2010, days after he discovered Ravi had secretly set up his laptop webcam to record him.

Ronak Patel, 22, a junior and business major at Rutgers, said fellow students were surprised at the verdict. “They’re just shocked that this happened on campus and that it could lead to these kinds of consequences,” Patel said. “I feel like it’s a good lesson to learn from.”

John Verdi, general counsel at the Electronic Public Information Center, said the case means people “aren’t going to be exempt from liability just because they are hiding behind a Twitter handle.”

“There are other cases that raise lots of important questions about privacy, but tweets are by default public; they aren’t like Facebook posts where they are restricted to friends or a group,” he said. “Everyone who signs up for Twitter has an understanding that they are broadcasting.”

The case could impact constitutional rights in general, says Lawrence Walters, a Florida-based attorney.

“While the law was used appropriately in this particular case, we must be careful — as a society — to not give the government broad power to censor filming of individuals or events,” he said. “Any such laws have the potential to be misused by the government, to squelch discourse on matters of public concern.”

Others point to the limits of the First Amendment and the jury’s decision to find Ravi guilty of essentially harassing Clementi.

The verdict is a reminder that words can be criminal, said Audrey Rogers, a professor at Pace Law School. “You’re not allowed to use your words to harass, annoy or intimidate someone,” she said. “It’s clear the law allows you to outlaw certain kinds of speech.”

Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, a national civil rights group, said the case was not about freedom of speech. “This is a case about bias intimidation and invasion of privacy,” she said.

New Jersey lawmakers hastened passage of an anti-bullying law because of the case, and Rutgers changed housing policies to allow opposite-sex roommates in an effort to make a more comfortable environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, the Associated Press reported.

“It is clear how important it is to have these laws and policies on the books for a situation like this one,” said Jody Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National. “This was an appropriate decision given the circumstances and the actions taken by Mr. Ravi. While there may never be anything such as closure for Tyler Clementi’s parents, family and friends, we hope that today’s verdict will at least start them on a path toward healing.”

He said schools must cultivate an environment of “respect, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of CampusPride, a national non-profit group that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender college students, echoed his ideas. “There are students who go through daily harassment just like Tyler Clementi,” he said. “Colleges haven’t taken responsibility for LGBT students.”

Contributing: Natalie DiBlasio; Alesha Williams Boyd of the Asbury Park Press