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Dharun Ravi guilty of anti-gay hate crime in Rutgers spycam case

A jury finds ex-Rutgers student Dharun Ravi guilty of privacy invasion and bias intimidation – a hate crime – after exposing a gay roommate's sexual encounter via spycam. The message: Privacy rights count even in the social-media age.

By Staff writer / March 16, 2012

Dharun Ravi, center, is helped by his father, Ravi Pazhani, second right, as they leave court in New Brunswick, N.J., Friday. Defense attorney Philip Nettl follows, second left. Ravi, a former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate's love life has been convicted of bias intimidation and invasion of privacy. His roommate Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death from New York's George Washington Bridge in September 2010.

Mel Evans/AP

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A former Rutgers University student who used a computer webcam to spy on his roommate has been found guilty of anti-gay intimidation, a hate crime in New Jersey that could carry a prison term of up to 10 years.

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In addition to this "bias intimidation" ruling, Dharun Ravi was also found guilty of privacy invasion for exposing the roommate's sexual encounter using the webcam. The New Jersey jury also convicted Mr. Ravi of tampering with evidence.

The roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide within days after learning that Ravi had said publicly via Twitter that "I saw him [Clementi] making out with a dude. Yay." The two had just started their freshman year at Rutgers.

Ravi's case drew national attention as a possible act of cyberbullying, bringing together concerns about animosity toward gays and about the rising prominence of social media forums like Twitter in daily life.

Although it's possible Ravi could get parts of the verdict overturned on appeal, legal analysts say the verdict sends a powerful message about the importance of respecting privacy rights – and watching what one says online.

"We still have an expectation of privacy, even in a social media age," says Bradley Shear, a Maryland attorney who specializes in privacy law. The case also stands as a warning, he says, that "the balance of your life can change in 140 characters or less."

A single Twitter post can be no more than 140 characters long, yet at least two such tweets figured prominently in Ravi's case.

In the first, Ravi announced witnessing the kissing, which he and a friend saw while remotely logged into his computer's video camera.

Two days later, when Clementi asked for a second night of privacy in the dorm room, Ravi told friends via a public Twitter message: "I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it's happening again."

Even though no viewing of intimate activity occurred that night, and Ravi himself was at a sports practice, prosecutors said the tweet showed Ravi's intent to violate the privacy of Clementi and his friend, known in the trial as M.B.

Prosecutor Julia McClure said no viewing occurred that night because a worried Clementi shut down Ravi's computer in the room.

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