Occidental College Ruthlessly Suppresses Free Speech

By July 15, 2004

LOS ANGELES, July 15, 2004—Showing profound contempt for free speech, Occidental College in Los Angeles has fired the student host of a popular student radio program and found him guilty of sexual harassment due to satirical jokes made on the air. Occidental also used this controversy as a pretext for the unprecedented decision to dissolve its entire student government and assume control of nearly half a million dollars in funds from student fees. Occidental then began a campaign of false accusations and distortions to justify, after the fact, its illiberal actions. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has spearheaded the defense of student radio host Jason Antebi since he was removed from his show last March, has formed a national coalition of organizations and is launching a public campaign to oppose Occidental’s outrageous actions.

“Occidental’s ruthless and corrupt actions are without parallel,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “Censorship is bad enough. Baselessly implying that a student had committed serious offenses in a cynical and dishonest attempt to scare off those who might aid him is worse. Using the controversy as an excuse to dissolve the entire student government is beyond the pale. Occidental must not be allowed to get away with what it has done.”

Numerous national organizations have joined FIRE in condemning Occidental’s actions against Jason Antebi, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the Student Press Law Center, and Students for Academic Freedom. Read the ACLU’s letter in support of Antebi below.

Antebi had hosted a popular radio show on Occidental’s student radio station for three years. The show, “Rant and Rave,” was a forum for political parody and provocative humor. The program frequently mocked Occidental’s administration, its student government, and various political and social causes. Antebi was also a vice president in Occidental’s student government, where he was highly critical of various administrative decisions.

In response to Antebi’s biting on-air satire, three students filed sexual harassment complaints against him in March 2004. Two of his accusers were student government rivals who had unsuccessfully tried to have him recalled from office on different grounds earlier in the year. In their complaints, the offended students claimed that Antebi’s show promoted “disrespect and slander” against “women, diversity, and Occidental College” and thus constituted a form of punishable “hostile environment” harassment. Occidental administrators then fired Antebi from his radio show despite objections by the radio station’s student management. Antebi contacted FIRE, which quickly wrote a letter on his behalf, pointing out that “none of [the accusers] state a single claim that would transform Mr. Antebi’s speech from fully protected provocative speech to unprotected harassment.”

On March 30, amidst the controversy over Antebi’s show, Occidental College President Ted Mitchell announced his decision to dissolve the student government. While Mitchell did not refer to Jason Antebi by name, virtually all of the reasons he gave for closing down the student government were directly related to the Antebi controversy. Then, on April 12, Occidental found Antebi guilty of “sexual and gender hostile environment harassment,” ignoring both the college’s promises to defend free speech and California’s “Leonard Law,” which guarantees free speech to students at private colleges and universities in California.

“When FIRE first became involved, Occidental seemed poised to expel Jason Antebi,” said Lukianoff. “Thanks to our relentless pressure, Jason was able to graduate. However, Occidental has not reversed or remedied his punishment, the ruling against him, his firing from the student radio station, the ruthless tactics used to defend the college’s actions, or the dissolution of the entire student government.”

Sandra Cooper, Occidental’s general counsel, responded to FIRE’s concerns with an April 2 letter that not only failed to remedy the wrongs done to Antebi or the student body, but also distorted facts and implied, without any evidence, that Antebi had committed a variety of serious offenses including vandalizing cars and making harassing phone calls. On May 6, FIRE responded with a detailed 28-page refutation of Cooper’s claims. FIRE wrote, “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.” FIRE also wrote to Occidental’s board of trustees to inform them of the situation.

“Had FIRE not been behind me every step of the way, I would not have my diploma right now,” said Antebi. “I’m not sure which of Occidental’s actions is more distressing: the punishment for my clearly protected speech or the unethical behavior on the part of the administration to try to justify and conceal its shameful and deceitful actions.”

Lukianoff concluded, “Occidental College’s administration has chilled its students’ expressive rights to the bone while violating the law, ethical constraints, and its promises to its students. The kind of satire and parody in which Antebi engaged enjoys the greatest protection under the First Amendment, and punishing it places Occidental in blatant violation of California state law. It is essential that Occidental’s board of trustees and administration move to correct these actions before the situation becomes even worse.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Occidental College and on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.

CONTACTS:
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; david.french@thefire.org
Ted Mitchell, President, Occidental College; 323-259-2691; tmitchel@oxy.edu
Sandra Cooper, General Counsel, Occidental College: 323-259-1441; scooper@oxy.edu

Schools: Occidental College