Columns » Jay Barth

Bullying bullies is bad law



I've known students like Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi.

Those like Clementi are grappling with their newly discovered sexuality and face mental health issues often tied to society's continued negative attitudes towards those who happen to be gay or lesbian. Others like Ravi are confused by all that comes with life outside the suburban cocoons of their childhoods and overcompensate by cockily behaving like complete jerks.

Most students like them have used their college years to come of age and work through their freshman year anxieties. By the time they graduate, the Tyler Clementis I've known have become more confident in themselves and are on their way to happiness in love and life. The Dharun Ravis are embarrassed about the mean spirited Facebook posts of their past but are prepared to more maturely deal with the new and challenging experiences of adult life.

Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi didn't have the time or the space to find themselves during college. Instead, they were forced together in a Rutgers University dorm room where their teen-age angsts collided in a tragic manner. After only a few weeks of living together, Ravi had used his computer camera to spy on Clementi during two intimate encounters with another man and had used social media to let friends know about his roommate's behavior. Clementi asked dorm officials for a roommate shift because of Ravi's offenses, then only hours later committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

Last week, a New Jersey jury found that Ravi had committed criminal acts not just by invading his roommate's privacy through the spying and by attempting to cover up his Twitter-based communications, but also through more serious bias intimidation charges. While Ravi's tweets clearly showed he simply didn't know how to deal with his roommate's sexuality respectfully, he showed no physical violence towards Clementi and his communications lacked any overt statement of antigay bias. All told, Ravi will be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and will face likely deportation; the bias intimidation verdicts will be the source of most of that prison time. When applied to nonviolent acts as in the Clementi case, a hate crime law like the New Jersey bias intimidation provision is essentially a wide-ranging antibullying law applied to adults.

Strong antibullying provisions make sense in elementary and secondary school settings. When bullying occurs and school officials fail to respond, bullies can effectively deny their victims educational opportunities by undermining their ability to learn. As someone who had to deal with a bully through junior high and high school, I know how debilitating that reality can be to kids' educations. Arkansans should be proud that — thanks to the smart work of legislators like Sen. David Johnson and others during the 2011 legislative session — our state has a clear antibullying law that is one of only 14 in the nation that specifically protects students from bullying based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, there reaches a point where the state protecting minority group members from nonviolent acts is no longer healthy for anyone. That moment is when those individuals become adults.

Ravi deserved to be charged for certain offenses (especially related to the cover-up), but the primary legal proceedings should have been civil rather than criminal, with Clementi's parents seeking damages for the harm that Ravi did them and their son.

When the state plays the ongoing role of protector of groups through criminal sanctions, it instills victimhood in the groups it chooses to protect. Even more troubling, it raises the real likelihood that some unpopular speech will be chilled because it might be perceived by some as an expression of intimidating bias that could send that individual to jail.

Most members of the LGBT community instinctually cheered the fact that a jury found Ravi guilty for his clear meanness towards his gay roommate last week. However, it would be short-sighted to see this as a victory for LGBT Americans or those who care about creating an America where civil rights are taken seriously. For real social change to be cemented, empowered members of those traditionally oppressed groups must stand up for themselves and demand respect.

Instead, when bullies, like Ravi, are bullied by criminal law we all are less free.

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