Some years ago a friend of mind walked off a plane at the Aberdeen airport and was arrested by a police officer. He was taken to an office in town, where he was told he would be charged. Waiting for him was a room full of people with party hats, bundles of balloons and a birthday cake. It was a practical joke, arranged by a friend who was a lawyer. One moral of this story is: beware of making friends with lawyers.
My friend tells this story with relish. That’s what happens when a practical joke succeeds. Suppose, however, that my friend had not guessed the nature of the joke from the start. Suppose, seized with fear, he had a heart attack and died en route to his party. The perpetrators would have been, I suspect, in legal peril. They would certainly had been in moral peril. Practical jokes are a perilous business.
I present that story because the most charitable view of what happened at Rutgers that I can even imagine is that it was a practical joke gone awry. I am not saying that that is the right way to view it. I am saying the most generous interpretation possible provides no moral absolution and shouldn’t constitute a legal defense. In case you don’t know, here is the story from the Daily Caller:
Last week in New Jersey, Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate broadcast a live feed of him engaging in sexual acts with another man. The roommate, Dharun Ravi and a friend Molly Wei, both freshmen, are being charged with invasion of privacy. But many people are calling for the prosecutor to charge them with a hate crime, which would double the maximum possible sentence.
You can find another telling of the tragic tale at the Washington Post.
There are two questions here, and both need to be asked. To ask the first one you have to leave aside the sex of the person with whom Mr. Clementi was involved. What should we think of people who secretly filmed two legal adults having sexual relations in a bedroom and then broadcast it live over the internet? We should think that this was an utterly atrocious invasion of privacy. We should think it is a criminal act. Apparently it is under New Jersey law.
Looking at it this way, we can see that this sort of thing threatens everyone’s privacy. To invade someone’s privacy in this way, let alone to broadcast it, looks to me like the equivalent of rape. In these times, we should all take that seriously.
The second question is whether it was a hate crime. I gather that this would double the possible penalties in the case. I have written in defense of hate crimes legislation at this blog. My fellow conservatives have many objections to such laws, but none of them are germane here. It is irrelevant what opinions Mr. Ravi or Ms. Wei might have about homosexuality. What is relevant is what opinions they had about Mr. Clementi and what they were secretly viewing. Here is something Mr. Ravi twittered.
Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.
Mr. Ravi thought that the sex of his roommate’s partner made his roommate more vulnerable, easier to victimize. That is precisely the sort of thing one can take into account when judging the severity of a crime. It is the sort of thing that is design to protect those persons who need the most protection. In these times, any of us could end up in that category.
What happened to Mr. Clementi was an atrocity. I expect that Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei thought they were only playing a harmless joke. They were nonetheless responsible for their actions, and holding people responsible is the whole point of criminal law.