October 19, 2007
by William Creeley
When it comes to trampling student rights, violating basic principles of fairness, and flat-out dishonesty, you might expect that we here at FIRE have seen the worst of the worst.
During his first three years as an undergrad at Occidental, Jason Antebi co-hosted Rant and Rave, a popular student radio show. Antebi was an unabashed shock jock in the style of Howard Stern, and his acerbic take on student government, Oxy administrators, politics, and popular culture cultivated a wide audience. Additionally, Antebi served as Vice President of the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC), Oxy’s student government.
In Antebi’s senior year, however, Rant and Rave
ran into some turbulence. Specifically, several students filed a sexual harassment complaint against him on March 12, 2004. On March 16, Dean of Students Frank Alaya notified Antebi that as a result, he was now “banned” from KOXY radio—despite the fact that the student management of the station, supposedly in charge of such decisions, objected to the move
. By March 25, three sexual harassment claims had been filed against Antebi due to the content of his radio show.
Now, any FIRE supporter knows that oftentimes, student-on-student harassment claims concern speech that doesn’t meet the stringent legal requirements of “true harassment,” as established by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights
. Indeed, that was precisely the problem with the complaints against Antebi, which alleged that Antebi’s on-air conduct constituted “hostile environment harassment.” The complaints specifically cited his mocking of fellow student government members, his insults of his own mother, “‘ad hominem’ satires,” and his “disrespect and slander” against “women, diversity, and Occidental College.” As FIRE stated in our first letter
The fact is that despite the stunning breadth of the three complaints against Mr. Antebi, none of them state a single claim that would transform Mr. Antebi’s speech from fully protected provocative speech to unprotected harassment. Fortunately for our society, the protection of the First Amendment does not end the moment satire stings local officials.
But the claims against Antebi were even more insidious, because two of the three complaints were filed by student government rivals who had led an unsuccessful attempt to impeach Antebi earlier in the school year. And despite FIRE’s initial letter to Oxy
clearly explaining the untenable legal basis of the actions against Antebi, the complaints were not dismissed, nor was his Rant and Rave
show restored to the airwaves. Instead, Oxy found Antebi guilty of “hostile environment” sexual harassment on April 12—a ruling made in direct contravention of California’s Leonard Law, which guarantees First Amendment protections to students at private colleges and universities, as Greg and Sam explained in the Daily Journal.
Further, in one of the most galling administrative decisions FIRE has ever seen, Oxy made the breathtaking decision to baselessly accuse Antebi in their response to FIRE
of criminal wrongdoing. In an obvious attempt to deter outside support for Antebi’s defense, Sandra Cooper, Oxy’s General Counsel, wrote FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California claiming that Antebi was under investigation for vandalizing cars, making harassing phone calls, and other offenses. According to Cooper, Antebi was apparently a ferocious racist, a criminal, and a vandal who was responsible for creating a climate of fear on campus so serious that women were “unable to concentrate, sleep, or even walk across campus without fear.”
After researching Cooper’s claims and finding them easily demonstrably false, FIRE responded with a detailed 28-page refutation
, stating: “If (as appears likely) these false statements were intentional, then this series of factual misrepresentations, baseless accusations, and legal distortions were likely an attempt to deter groups like FIRE and the ACLU from aiding Antebi in this case.” The ACLU of Southern California also responded to Cooper’s claims
, urging Oxy to rescind its verdict against Antebi.
As shockingly cynical and corrupt as a school’s general counsel intentionally distorting the facts of an ongoing student judicial matter obviously is, it gets worse. On March 30, while the controversy around Antebi’s show was still swirling, Occidental President Ted Mitchell decided to dissolve the ASOC
. Though he did not specifically name Antebi in announcing the move, Mitchell’s reasons for eliminating Oxy’s student government cited the claims against Antebi. Further, the dissolution allowed the administration to seize nearly a half-million dollars of student fees! Writing about Oxy’s “despotic decision” a year later, Greg observed
Dissolving the student government for any reason is a virtually unprecedented step, in my experience. As I have pointed out many times, Kent State at the height of the riots and violence did not even dissolve its student government. What kind of example does Oxy want to give to its students? Is Oxy trying to prepare students for life in a pluralistic democracy, or a puppet dictatorship with contempt for the rule of law?
But back to Jason. A year after being found guilty of “hostile environment harassment” entirely on the basis of comments made on a radio show—comments that any offended student could have easily decided not
to listen to, simply by turning off their stereo!—and barely managing to graduate, Jason filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Oxy
in March 2005. Jason’s lawsuit accused Occidental of a wide variety of offenses, principally the violation of the free speech rights guaranteed to him by California’s Leonard Law
. As Greg noted at the time of the lawsuit’s filing: “No student should be put through what he has had to suffer—and no student government should be dissolved on the pretense of ‘offensive’ speech. With this lawsuit, we hope that college administrators and trustees at Occidental and across the nation will realize that they will be held accountable for their employees’ abuses of power.”
Two years after the suit’s filing, after disappointing rulings from California state courts
, Jason’s long fight has ended in victory. Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that three years later, almost all of the involved members of the Occidental administration—including former President Ted Mitchell
—are no longer with the college. The major exception, however, is General Counsel Sandra Cooper, the author of Oxy’s initial response, who is responsible for the turning a case about censorship into a case about deception, false accusations, and misdirection. As Jason notes, “I don’t believe it is a coincidence that many of those named in the lawsuit are no longer with Occidental College.”
After the hundreds of pages FIRE has written in support of Jason
, we are relieved that a successful outcome has finally been secured. And while we hope Oxy’s experience will serve as a warning to other would-be censors on college campuses, we will of course remain vigilant against future abuses of liberty, like that perpetrated against Jason, on our nation’s campuses.