Ever since Jason Antebi filed suit against Occidental College for finding him guilty of sexual harassment under federal law for on-air jokes and for baselessly accusing him of serious criminal wrongdoing in order to keep groups like FIRE and the ACLU from coming to his aid, I have received many emails on the topic. Many of them point out other incidents at Oxy where speech was not tolerated or where the university acted as a bully with little or no respect for students’ rights. I have also received a handful of emails, however, that I find deeply disturbing.
At least two of these emails are from Oxy students, and they essentially argue, “Well, maybe the school misrepresented some things in defending its actions against Antebi, but he was very, very rude and a bad student representative.” This “ends justify the means” attitude is chilling, especially because it comes from students who claim to value free speech. If they agree that the General Counsel misrepresented a case against a fellow student (and our 28-page response to her letter demonstrates, in my opinion, that she not only did so but likely did so knowingly), isn’t that a dramatic wrong by itself, no matter which student it was perpetrated against? Furthermore, student government complaints about Jason had already been dealt with—some students even attempted (unsuccessfully) to have him impeached. Interestingly, two of the students who brought him up on impeachment charges were the ones who later brought sexual harassment charges against him for calling the female student rep a “bearded feminist” and the male student rep a “douche.” None of this makes any of what Antebi said sexual harassment, or justifies the dissolution of the student government, or any of the rest of Oxy’s amazing accusations and denials.
Which leads me to my main point: Any time you take jokes and place quotes around them and put them in a complaint they can look a lot more sinister than they sounded in context. The Trials of Lenny Bruce is the story of a famous comedian whose intentionally provocative humor landed him in court and, sometimes, jail. Now I am not saying that Antebi is any Lenny Bruce, but the lessons of Lenny include the fact that effective parody and satire will, necessarily, bother people. That’s sort of the point.
The Supreme Court clearly recognized this fact in Hustler v. Falwell, a case in which extremely offensive satire was deemed protected. Satire and parody need to be so strongly protected because they serve an important societal function and because when they are effective they are extremely likely to anger their targets to the point of calling for censorship.
FIRE has seen many, many disturbing cases in which satire and parody have landed students in hot water, including cases at Harvard, UCSD, UNH, SMSU, SCSU and numerous other cases. As I wrote in a recent column:
Can you imagine Jerry Seinfeld being dragged in front of a court to justify the “necessity” of including jokes about masturbation, oral sex and homosexuality in creative meetings? I can say with great confidence that, in such a situation, Jerry’s guilt—or innocence—of harassment would depend on whether his jury “got the joke.”
I fully expect people to write in quoting Antebi and saying, “Well, I don’t think that is funny at all.” I can’t promise I would find it funny either, but whether I do or not is irrelevant. No matter how unfunny a joke may be, it is still not harassment. Harassment is a pattern of behavior directed at an individual, not a license to ban anything that offends us.
But just so we can be clear that Jason Antebi was at least trying to be funny when he mocked his fellow student representatives, below is one of his ads for his now infamous radio show Rant and Rave. Whether it amuses you or not it helps give this remarkable controversy a little context:
From: Jason Robert Antebi
Sent: Sun 11/9/2003 8:55 PM
Subject: The most Uncontroversial and Positive show on KOXY!!! You won’t be offended, we promise.
The MOST UNCONTROVERSIAL SHOW OF THE YEAR!!!
If you are only going to listen to ONE KOXY show this year… tune into another show, but if you were to only listen to four or five shows, THIS is the one you shouldn’t miss!
THE MOST POSITIVE SHOW OF THE YEAR! EVEN YOUR MOTHER COULD LISTEN!!!
Our show, heard every Tuesday night from 10pm-12am on KOXY 104.7 FM, has changed formats!! No more offensive and fun shows!!
On this week’s show…
-What is YOUR favorite rainbow color?
-Name that New Testament verse!
-The virtues of building “bridges of communication” so that whites and non-whites can come together and create positive social change!
-Why puppies and kittens are soooo cute!!
-Why it’s okay to be “different”.
-Why it’s wrong to make fun of people who are too sensitive for their own good.
-”Jew Talk” is replaced with “Mad About Jesus”.
-Songs by the most positive musicians of our time, like John Denver and the Celine Dion.
Please join the bipolar Jason “Absolutely Affirmative” Antebi and the painfully shy Sam “Magnificently Positive” Mowe as we talk about loving life and living every day to its fullest (without the use of prescription drugs)!!
KOXY 104.7 fm.
Rant and Rave with Jason and Sam. Every Tuesday nights.
Sponsored by the OXY Libertarians.
It’s a show even the ICC would approve of.*
*We make no claims as to what the ICC would approve of.
Schools: Occidental College