May 23, 2012

ONE MAN TOOK his own life. A year and a half later, another man was given his back. Such is the state of the tragic case involving a bullying incident at Rutgers University in New Jersey that turned into a legal and moral quandary, raising questions of hate-crime law, criminal responsibility and cybercivility.

On Sept. 22, 2010, Rutgers student Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, put online a video of an intimate encounter between Mr. Clementi and another man. On March 16, a jury of 12 convicted Mr. Ravi of invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension, witness tampering and multiple counts of bias intimidation. This week Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman sentenced Mr. Ravi to 30 days in jail, three years’ probation, 300 hours of community service, a $10,000 fine that will go to help victims of hate crimes, and counseling on cyberbullying and alternate lifestyles. Notably, Mr. Berman also advised against the deportation of Mr. Ravi, an Indian citizen.

Judge Berman’s sentence was startling not only because Mr. Ravi was facing up to 10 years in prison but because it followed the judge’s sharp admonishment of Mr. Ravi in court. “I heard this jury say guilty 288 times,” Mr. Berman said, “and I haven’t heard you apologize once.” He aptly labeled Mr. Ravi’s actions — first spying on his roommate kissing another man via a webcam and then broadcasting a subsequent encounter — examples of “colossal insensitivity.”

But ultimately, the punishment seems about right, given that the crime includes the reprehensible privacy violations and counts of bias but not the charge of murder. Mr. Ravi is not legally responsible for the death of Mr. Clementi, his casual cruelty notwithstanding. According to Judge Berman, Mr. Ravi did not hate Mr. Clementi and thus didn’t merit substantial prison time under New Jersey’s bias-intimidation laws, which usually tie extensive incarceration to simultaneous demonstrations of bias and acts of physical violence.

Depending on the results of an appeal, which both the defense and prosecution are pursuing, Mr. Ravi may serve only the relatively merciful jail term. Potentially more important are other aspects of the punishment — the fine that will contribute to remedying the effects of hate crimes and the community service requirement — that radiate outward, helping to treat the underlying conditions enabling Mr. Ravi’s act. At colleges and universities across the country, students have the technological means to commit once-unimaginable acts of meanness. If history is to be prevented from repeating itself, students ought to be educated about the implications of their activity in cyberspace and guided to tread in that realm — as in all realms — with humanity.