CALIFORNIA — A year after Occidental College fired him from his radio station job for making jokes on the air that school officials referred to as “hate speech,” former student and radio host Jason Antebi sued the private school for violating his constitutional rights.
On March 15 Antebi filed suit–with the support of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education–in California Superior Court, claiming violations of his free speech and due process rights as protected by California law.
Antebi’s battle with Occidental began in March 2004 when the school fired him from student radio station KOXY, after he made comments on the show he hosted for three years, “Rant and Rave,” about former members of the student government, whom he referred to as his rivals. According to FIRE, on the air he called one a “bearded feminist” and called the other “half man, half vagina.” A third former member was “offended” because Antebi made comments insulting student newspaper editors and mocking the upcoming Take Back the Night rally against domestic violence and rape.
Two of the three students filed a sexual harassment complaint against Antebi with the school’s human resources department, claiming that his show promoted “disrespect and slander” against “women, diversity, and Occidental College,” according to a news release published by FIRE in July. But Antebi described the nature of the show as displaying a “shock jock humor that is typical of college radio programs,” and wrote in the Pasadena Star News on Dec. 8 that “while undoubtedly some were offended [by the show], certainly no one was harassed.”
Antebi contacted FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, Greg Lukianoff, who wrote to Occidental President Ted Mitchell on March 30, 2004, that the school’s actions threatened Antebi’s right to free speech because the content of “Rant and Rave” was fully protected by California’s Leonard Law. The Leonard Law prohibits private colleges and high schools from making or enforcing any rule that would subject a student to disciplinary action for engaging in expression that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment if it occurred off campus. California is the only state with statutory protections for the free expression rights of private school students.
Occidental General Counsel Sandra Cooper responded in an April 2 letter that the issue was not whether the college infringed on Antebi’s free speech rights, but whether “the college is required to sponsor a forum to facilitate Mr. Antebi’s behavior, which includes hate speech.” Her letter accused Antebi of various incidents of illegal activity, such as “middle of the night sexual telephone calls” and disabling two tires on a vehicle, as well as an example of “hate speech” written in his online diary, which was not hosted on the college’s Web site.
A July press release from FIRE said Cooper’s letter “distorted facts and implied, without evidence, that Antebi had committed a variety of serious offenses that included vandalizing cars and making harassing phone calls.”
On April 12, 2004, Antebi was found guilty of sexual harassment by the school.
“Occidental administrators went far beyond punishing ‘offensive’ speech,” Antebi wrote in December 2004. “They sought to intimidate and silence me with a campaign of misinformation.”
During the controversy last year, Mitchell announced his decision to dissolve the student government–the reasons for which, Lukianoff said, “were directly related to the Antebi controversy,” since he was the vice president of the student government at the time.
According to FIRE, Mitchell described various examples of “abusive, intimidating, harassing behavior” as well as “an unacceptable number of complaints and cross complaints involving [student government] officials,” to justify dissolving the student government.
By July 2004, the ACLU of Southern California, the Student Press Law Center and Students for Academic Freedom joined FIRE in condemning Occidental’s actions against Antebi.
The Sherman & Nathanson law firm filed Antebi’s suit against Occidental College on March 15. Antebi asks for $10 million in damages and asks the court to “strike down Occidental policies that allowed Antebi to be found guilty of sexual harassment for his on-air comments,” according to a FIRE news release.
The suit claims “defamation [and a] violation of contractual promises to free speech and to due process,” by the college, Lukianoff said. He said Occidental College has made unsubstantial accusations against Antebi.
“[Occidental has] implied, and in some places claimed, that Jason had something to do with vandalism, with making harassing phone calls and all sorts of acts of criminal behavior. From my extensive research of the case, they have no proof whatsoever,” Lukianoff said. “And it was [our] conclusion that this was an attempt to keep FIRE and the ACLU from becoming involved.”
Occidental College has not yet filed a response to Antebi’s complaint. School spokesman Jim Tranquada said he is waiting for the school to be served with the complaint before commenting on the case.
Lukianoff said he is astonished by Occidental College’s actions over the past year.
“This really is, from top to bottom, one of the most remarkable cases of my career,” he said. “It’s not just about censorship, it’s about dishonesty. It’s about a university that, rather than admit it was wrong, was willing to spread falsehoods about one of its students.”
–By Diane Krauthamer
Read previous coverage