Lesson of Rutgers Case: Online Actions Carry Consequences - USATODAY.com
The conviction of ex-Rutgers student Dharun Ravi sends a message to social media users that actions and words played out across the Web could lead to a prison sentence, legal and digital experts say.
Ravi, convicted of invasion of privacy and other charges for electronically spying on his freshman roommate during a gay encounter, could face up to 10 years in prison in a case likely to have lasting implications on how people use the internet. Some caution that free speech rights on the Web could also be affected.
“It demonstrates that there are consequences for somebody’s use of technology,” said Eric Nemecek, co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Cybercrime Committee. “This should be a cautionary tale for a lot of people. … You often don’t think what you’re doing could lead to criminal prosecution.”
Nemecek said that in Ravi’s case, the jury looked not only at Ravi’s use of the webcam to spy on his roommate but at the Twitter messages he sent to determine his intent — a key factor in deciding whether he committed a bias crime.
Tyler Clementi: jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge in 2010
The roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide in September 2010, days after he discovered Ravi had secretly set up his laptop webcam to record him.
John Verdi, general counsel at the Electronic Public Information Center, said the case means people “aren’t going to be exempt from liability just because they are hiding behind a Twitter handle.”
“There are other cases that raise lots of important questions about privacy, but tweets are by default public, they aren’t like Facebook posts where they are restricted to friends or a group,” he said. “Everyone who signs up for Twitter has an understanding that they are broadcasting.”
The case could impact constitutional rights in general, says Lawrence Walters, a Florida-based attorney.
“While the law was used appropriately in this particular case, we must be careful - as a society - to not give the government broad power to censor filming of individuals or events,” he said. “Any such laws have the potential to be misused by the government, to squelch discourse on matters of public concern.”
Others point to the limits of the First Amendment and the jury’s decision to find Ravi guilty of essentially harassing Clementi.
The verdict is a reminder that words can be criminal, said Audrey Rogers, a professor at Pace Law School. “You’re not allowed to use your words to harass, annoy or intimidate someone,” she said. “It’s clear the law allows you to outlaw certain kinds of speech.”