California court says former Occidental student can not sue under Leonard Law

CALIFORNIA — A state appeals court ruled in August that a former Occidental College student lacked legal standing to sue the school for firing him after he made controversial comments on-air because he had already graduated by the time he filed the lawsuit.

Former Occidental shock-jock Jason Antebi sued under California’s Leonard Law, which prohibits private colleges in the state from punishing students for expression that would be protected by the First Amendment if it occurred off campus. The law says “any student enrolled” at the institution can sue when its provisions are violated.

A lower court had produced a similar ruling in 2005, and Antebi said he plans to appeal to the California Supreme Court next week.

“We’re petitioning because we feel that there were two major errors in the decision, specifically [with] the Leonard Law.” Antebi said. “The ruling labeled the Leonard Law useless.”

The California Court of Appeals did find that Antebi’s defamation claim against the school was viable, and that Antebi can pursue action against Occidental and school General Counsel Sandra Cooper.

Cooper allegedly called Antebi a “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist,” “anti-Semite,” “homophobe,” “unethical” and “immoral” “trash” while yelling in earshot of witnesses.

Antebi said he was fired for his comments and found guilty of sexual harassment by a campus judiciary panel just days before he graduated from Occidental, leaving him little time to file the lawsuit while he was still a student.

Antebi has maintained that the show was of the typical “shock jock” formula, and that the appeals court ruling creates too large of a loophole to ignore.

“The Leonard Law is supposed to be there to protect,” Antebi said. “Too often administrators are able to dictate what can and can’t be said on a college campus. Now they don’t have to be threatened by the Leonard Law, they can just get rid of the student.”

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has helped Antebi with his case, said even the original law’s author, former California Assemblymember Bill Leonard, disagrees with the courts interpretation.

Schools can avoid censorship lawsuits by simply expelling the student before he or she can file a lawsuit, Lukianoff said.

“Under the way that the court has interpreted [the law], a university would have free reign to censor a student in the last semester of his senior year almost as much as they’d like to,” Lukianoff said.

The First Amendment Project, Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California expressed similar concerns in a letter to the California Supreme Court Sept. 12.

Antebi said if his appeal to the Supreme Court is unsuccessful, he will pursue the defamation charges against Occidental and Cooper.