Judges allow defamation lawsuit against Oxy to proceed

By September 27, 2006

Occidental Alumnus and former KOXY “shock-jock” Jason Antebi (’04) can sue Occidental College and its General Counsel Sandra Cooper for defamation, according to a decision handed down by a California appellate court last month.

The unanimous decision by the three-judge panel reversed a lower court’s ruling that dismissed Antebi’s lawsuit. The trial court’s August 2005 decision held that Antebi was required to pursue internal “administrative” remedies to exhaustion, such as judicial hearings with College officials and other forms of recourse outlined in the student handbook, but regardless of Occidental’s conduct, Antebi could not sue.

In spring 2004, Occidental cancelled Antebi’s radio show “Rant and Rave” and charged him with sexually harassing the College via the KOXY program by referring to two students as the “bearded feminist” and “douche.”

The College stated Antebi’s show created a hostile environment within the campus community. Oxy General Counsel Sandra Cooper further charged him with several serious crimes, including vandalizing cars and distributing and abusing drugs. Antebi was not found guilty on these additional charges, however.

Antebi’s initial suit charges Cooper with defamation for allegedly shouting at Antebi in a public hallway, calling him a “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist,” and “unethical and immoral white trash.” The suit also claims she labeled Antebi, who is Jewish, as an “anti-Semite.”

Antebi filed a complaint against Occidental in March 2005, citing “defamation, civil rights violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, […and] breach of contract.” Antebi’s suit also asked for his file to be purged of the charges filed against him and asked for compensatory damages for the “loss of future earnings” and “sustained injury to his nervous system and person.”

However, while the appellate court ruled that Antebi could sue Oxy for defamation, the panel upheld the lower court’s ruling that said he had no claim to sue Occidental for the alleged First Amendment violations, a protection Antebi and civil rights groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the ACLU said he is granted under California’s Leonard Law. The Leonard Law prohibits private colleges in the state from punishing students for expression that would be protected by the First Amendment if it occurred off-campus.

According to the lower court’s decision, Antebi could not pursue his Leonard Law claim against the college because he was not an enrolled student at the time he filed his lawsuit.

“This opens a giant loophole in the Leonard Law,” Antebi’s attorney Christopher Arledge said. “Colleges are now free to avoid the law by simply expelling students who engage in constitutionally protected but disfavored speech. This is not what the legislature intended.”

Bill Leonard, the California legislator who authored the Leonard Law, echoed Arledge’s criticism of the ruling in the National Review Online. The law’s intent was to protect students in Antebi’s position, regardless of whether or not he was a student when he filed the lawsuit, Leonard said.

Arledge also said he does not understand why Occidental is actively pursuing a policy that runs contrary to its stated mission valuing openness and diversity.

“Why does the college not want diversity of speech in accordance with the first amendment principles? Why not agree that the First Amendment applies on campus through the Leonard Law?” Arledge said in a recent interview.

Arledge said his client will proceed with the defamation claim against Occidental and that he and Antebi will ask the California Supreme Court to review the case to test once again students’ freedoms under the Leonard Law.

Occidental Director of Communications Jim Tranquada, a defendant in this case, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Antebi’s attorney Christopher Arledge is a former Oxy student and a partner at the Costa Mesa based firm Turner, Green, Afrasiabi, and Arledge LLP, which specializes in appellate litigation. Stuart Tochner of Musick, Peeler, and Garrett, LLP is representing Occidental College in the suit.

Antebi is currently working as a producer for several radio shows at KFI-FM in Los Angeles and hosts a talk radio program in San Diego.

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Schools: Occidental College