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Gay rights voices urge leniency in Rutgers spying case

Some gay activists argue that pinning blame on Dharun Ravi, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Monday in the suicide of his roommate at Rutgers , ignores the complicated pressures that drive gay teenagers to suicide.
/ Source: The New York Times

In the two months since he was found guilty of using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Dharun Ravi has gone from being a symbol of antigay bias to being something of a folk hero, with rallies of his supporters urging the court to “free Dharun.”

What may be most surprising is how many of those arguing in his defense are prominent gay rights advocates.

With Mr. Ravi scheduled to be sentenced on Monday, many of them have argued against the prison term prosecutors have recommended. They say that Mr. Ravi is being punished for the suicide of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, although he was not charged in it, and that pinning blame on him ignores the complicated social pressures that drive gay teenagers to kill themselves.

As repugnant as his behavior was, they say, it was not the blatantly bigoted or threatening actions that typically define hate crimes. Some fear that a sentence that overreaches might provide tinder to antigay sentiment — a New Jersey talk-radio host complained soon after the verdict of the “gay lobby” railroading Mr. Ravi.

While Mr. Clementi’s suicide in September 2010 galvanized public attention on the struggles of gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers, the question of how to punish Mr. Ravi has revealed the deep discomfort that many gay people feel about using the case as a crucible. “You’re making an example of Ravi in order to send a message to other people who might be bullying, to schools and parents and to prosecutors who have not considered this a crime before,” said Marc Poirier, a law professor at Seton Hall University who is gay and has written about hate-crimes legislation. “That’s a function of criminal law, to condemn as general deterrence. But I think this is a fairly shaky set of facts on which to do it.”

In an op-ed article in The Star-Ledger of Newark this month, Jim McGreevey, who resigned as New Jersey’s governor after declaring himself “a gay American,” argued that Mr. Ravi’s conviction “showed how far we have traveled from the hateful, homophobic past.”

“The criminal justice system worked, this time for a gay victim,” Mr. McGreevey wrote. “But there was something disquieting about the prospect of retributive punishment being meted out on behalf of a gay young man.”

Mr. McGreevey, who now counsels prisoners, argued that jail time would neither rehabilitate nor send a message. “Perhaps the long trail of gay history inevitably leads to this call for punishment,” he wrote, “but it need not.”

The discussion itself is causing some gay rights advocates discomfort. Richard Kim, the executive editor of The Nation online, who wrote after Mr. Clementi’s suicide about his own experience growing up gay in New Jersey, said he was wary that expressing opposition to a prison sentence would make him appear to link hands with those who accuse gay men and lesbians of seeking “special treatment” with laws against bullying.

“That’s not my argument,” Mr. Kim said. Still, he added, he does not think the verdict against Mr. Ravi was justified, and he does not think he should serve jail time.

“I haven’t seen anything to convince me it has any deterrent effect,” he said.

Mr. Ravi set up a webcam to spy on Mr. Clementi three weeks into their freshman year at Rutgers University, after Mr. Clementi asked to have the room alone so he could be with a man he had recently met on a Web site for gay men.

Mr. Clementi’s suicide three days later prompted an outcry from celebrities and politicians, and pushed New Jersey to pass one of the nation’s strictest anti-bullying laws.

In court, prosecutors used an extensive electronic record to show how Mr. Ravi, 20, had sent Twitter and text messages declaring that he had seen his roommate “making out with a dude,” and encouraging others to watch. The jury convicted Mr. Ravi on all 15 counts, including invasion of privacy, hate crimes and tampering with evidence after he tried to cover up his Twitter trail.

Dan Savage, a gay columnist whose video campaign, “It Gets Better,” began in response to other suicides of gay teenagers just before Mr. Clementi, 18, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, argued that simply locking up Mr. Ravi was a lost opportunity to talk about the other institutions and people “complicit” in Mr. Clementi’s death.

“What was he told about being gay growing up, by his faith leaders, by the media, by the culture?” Mr. Savage said. “Ravi may have been the last person who made him feel unsafe and abused and worthless, but he couldn’t have been the first.

“The rush to pin all the responsibility on Ravi and then wash our hands and walk away means we’re not going to learn the lessons of these kids.”

In an essay, J. Bryan Lowder, a columnist at Slate, urged against a prison sentence: “Unfortunately, we can’t lock the bully up, because the bully is in all of us.”

Mr. Lowder, 24, argued that Mr. Ravi’s remarks had to be viewed in the context of being a teenager in a culture where low-level homophobia is pervasive — whether it is high school students dismissing things not vaguely homosexual as “so gay,” or Mr. Ravi’s texts suggesting that gay men were at least a bit icky.

“It’s not to say that those things don’t hurt and those things are fine,” Mr. Lowder said in an interview. “But to pin the whole weight of our culture of homophobia on Ravi and to think that sending him a message is going to fix all that is misguided.”

He suggested that Mr. Ravi be sentenced to speaking about the outsize effects that small words can have.

In a memo this month, the prosecutor, Julia McClure, urged that Mr. Ravi be imprisoned as a deterrent to antigay bias. She “adamantly disputed” that his was the exceptional case that should make the judge deviate from awarding him the 5- to 10-year prison sentence associated with the charges.

In the memo, Ms. McClure quoted a text message, not introduced in court, that Mr. Ravi had sent to a friend the day after Mr. Clementi killed himself, arguing that it showed a lack of remorse. Mr. Ravi, who had by then left Rutgers, asked, “How can I convince my mom to let me go back Friday night and get drunk?”

Mr. Ravi rejected two plea deals that would have included what his supporters are arguing for now: community service, probation and no jail time.

Ms. McClure said she would not push for the maximum prison sentence. But she urged the judge, Glenn Berman, to ignore pleas from pundits.

“Those opinions are largely, if not entirely, uninformed and discredit the intelligence and commitment of the citizens who were selected to serve on the jury panel,” she wrote.

And many gay rights advocates have argued against leniency, to reinforce the message that Mr. Ravi’s behavior should not be written off as teenage foolishness.

Suzanne B. Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia, said the sentence had to match what others would get.

“Most 20-year-olds who commit serious crimes don’t get community service,” she said.

Ms. Goldberg compared Mr. Ravi’s case to that of a teenager who kills someone while sending text messages and driving. “It shows the same disregard of human life and human dignity that stems in part from immaturity,” she said. “The texters are not texting with the intent of causing someone’s death, but if they cause injury or death, they are held accountable. To have them just engage in a public-service campaign against texting while driving is not what we do in our current system.”

Mr. Ravi could face deportation to his native India if he is given a prison sentence. Many Indians have been among his biggest supporters. At a rally on the State House steps in Trenton last week, some waved signs with the headline on Mr. McGreevey’s article: “Don’t Make Dharun Ravi Our Antigay Scapegoat.”

Peter Frycki, the publisher of Out in New Jersey, a magazine for gay people, said his readers had been split, with about two-thirds saying they believed that the jury had done the right thing, and one-third disagreeing. But many, he said, are arguing that Mr. Ravi should be forced to do community service against bullying, rather than serve jail time.

“If he was as antigay as the prosecution made him out to be, that would be a learning lesson,” he said. “That would be something good. There’s not a lot of good in this case.”

This story, "Some gay rights advocates question Rutgers sentencing," originally appeared in The New York Times.