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Conviction Of Dharun Ravi

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy

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Mr. President, last week, a jury in New Jersey convicted Dharun Ravi for violations of New Jersey criminal laws against bias intimidation and invasion of privacy. Mr. Ravi had used a Webcam to spy on and then publicize an intimate encounter between his college roommate, Tyler Clementi, and another man. Tragically, Mr. Clementi became so distraught that he took his own life.

Young men and women should not be bullied or shamed because of their sexual orientation. It is incumbent on every segment of society to do what we can to stop bullying in schools and in our communities. As Tyler Clementi's father said after the jury verdict was announced:

To our college, high school and even middle school youngsters, I would say this: You're going to meet a lot of people in your lifetime. Some of these people you may not like. But just because you don't like them does not mean you have to work against them.

I can only imagine the Clementi family's grief and suffering over their loss. I applaud the efforts they are making to raise awareness about the real dangers of bullying on American campuses.

The Senate is also taking steps to address the growing problem of bullying. I am pleased to be a cosponsor of Senator Casey's Safe Schools Improvement Act, which requires schools to establish bullying prohibition policies and would help educators identify and address any conduct based on a student's actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. Another bill that I support is the Student Non-Discrimination Act introduced by Senator Franken, which would define harassment as a form of discrimination in our public schools. Both bills have more than 35 cosponsors and deserve full consideration by the Senate. It has been well documented that students who are paralyzed by fear of bullying cannot effectively learn. Congress should help ensure that States and schools have the tools they need to prevent or punish bullying in any form. We must do more to ensure that all students are protected and can thrive in their schools.

In the aftermath of Dharun Ravi's conviction in New Jersey, there has been some commentary on hate crimes laws generally. Some have wondered whether hate crimes laws criminalize thoughts or beliefs and have the effect of chilling free speech. Others have expressed confusion whether Mr. Ravi could have been prosecuted under our recently passed Federal hate crimes law.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, let me clarify the scope of Federal hate crimes statutes. First, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act protects the constitutional right of every individual to have her own thoughts and beliefs and express them in a lawful manner. The law does not prohibit or punish speech, expression, or association in any way--even hate speech. The Constitution does not permit us in Congress to prohibit the expression of an idea simply because we disagree with it.

The Matthew Shepard Act punishes physical violence, not speech. The law requires the defendant to have caused or attempted to cause bodily injury to the victim while being motivated by the victim's sexual orientation or another defined characteristic. Importantly, the defendant in a Federal hate crimes case must have acted willfully. In other words, the defendant must have voluntarily and intentionally caused bodily injury to the victim. From what we know of the Ravi case, the defendant could not have been prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard Act because Mr. Ravi did not willfully cause bodily injury to Tyler Clementi, nor did he willfully cause the victim to take his own life.

We know that the consequences of bias-motivated violence extend beyond the victim. Hate crimes instill fear in those who have no connection to the victim other than a shared characteristic such as race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. Preventing such consequences is the reason I offered the Matthew Shepard Act as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill more than 2 years ago. The law has already resulted in several Federal criminal convictions. For example, two Arkansas men were convicted after they targeted five Hispanic victims at a gas station and rammed their car off the road causing serious injuries. Two other men in New Mexico were convicted under this statute for branding a disabled Navajo man with a swastika while writing the words ``KKK'' and ``white power'' on his body.

The Ravi prosecution was brought under New Jersey's laws, which are different from our Federal hate crimes laws.