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.
And you’d be right. FIRE has seen the worst—and when it comes to the sheer abuse of power, the worst is without question the case of Occidental College and its dealings with former student Jason Antebi. Today, after over three and a half years of effort, FIRE is extremely pleased to announce that Jason’s case has finally come to an end in the form of an undisclosed settlement with Oxy. According to his statement, Jason is “very happy with the outcome.”
But just how did Antebi’s case reach this point? What exactly happened at Oxy back in 2004? It’s a grim story of lies, distortion, and malicious abuses of power—which is precisely why it’s so important to tell.
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 to Oxy:
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.
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.