What I’m seeing from quite a few queer people is a lot of liberal hand-wringing over the conviction of Dharun Ravi without many people pin-pointing the source of dissatisfaction. Yes, he broke the law as written, he did something wrong, but…
The “but” points to two things, in my opinion:
1. 10 years is a long time for catching a couple seconds of your roommate making out and for tweeting people to look at it, even though it didn’t work.
2. There really is a strong change that Ravi didn’t get that his behavior was wrong, and, more concretely, that it would lead to 5-10 years of prison.
The issue isn’t that privacy is necessarily different today that it was half a century ago. Putting someone’s sex life online in video is still a violation of privacy, both in terms of culture and law.
The issue is an overly punitive criminal justice system that we think can solve all our problems. Up to 10 years for a nonviolent crime? Shit. That’s not normal by international standards. As the New York Times pointed out a few years ago, part of the reason the US has so many people in prison compared to other countries is because people get sentences for crimes that other countries punish through non-prison means. They cited writing bad checks, but violating someone’s privacy would probably be there too.
I find the worrying about ruining two people’s lives instead of one as fairly legitimate. The justifications that I’m seeing center around the idea that Ravi killed Clementi, which wasn’t what the trial was about and could never be proved – no one knows why Clementi jumped from that bridge but it probably wasn’t because of one incident that the school was in the process of solving.
The other point of contention is about hate crimes laws themselves. The right and the left criticize them as thought policing, while liberals insist that they’ll only be used for when someone’s actions are motivated by bias. Determining exactly why people do what they do is hard, and short of a confession or mind-reading it’s always going to be more of an art than a science. This jury basically said that it was a bias crime because Ravi did it twice over several days instead of just once.
That’s not what liberals have been promising when it comes to these laws, so it’s understandable that there are some liberals out there who are worried about how they was used in this case. Again, the justification that I’m seeing for the use of bias crime enhancements in this case (with the attendant sentencing minimum) is that Dharun Ravi really hated gay people and that he was bullying his roommate, something that the jury didn’t see and that there’s little evidence for.
The last thing is that there was a major failure on the part of the defense, which could have been the lawyer or the family or Dharun himself. He was offered 600 hours of community service but didn’t take it because, as his lawyer put it, he wasn’t guilty.
It was a weird statement because Ravi was so plainly guilty of several counts of violated privacy and attempting to tamper with the investigation (he sent text messages to his friend for them to get their stories straight, among other things), bias crime and intimidation charges aside. The lawyer seemed to be going for jury nullification with his “boys will be boys” defense, but that’s a long shot, especially in a country as prison-happy and punishment-obsessed as the US.
But it’s too late now.