The failure of PC-loving academics to differentiate their personal reactions to certain speech from the legality of that speech has long caused unlawful censorship and distressing uniformity on America’s college campuses. Too often, protected “offensive” speech is confused with unprotected “harassing” speech. Recent actions by Occidental College in Los Angeles, California show the degree to which some colleges will punish speech they find personally offensive.
In March of 2004, Occidental College fired radio host Jason Antebi from the College radio station and found him guilty of “sexual harassment” against his entire audience for parodying two student government rivals on his show, calling one a “bearded feminist” and the other a “douche.” The College claimed that Antebi’s broadcasts promoted “disrespect and slander” against “women, diversity, and Occidental College,” actions the College claimed constituted “hostile environment harassment.”
Mr. Antebi’s brand of “shock jock” humor is typical of college radio programs and made the show the most listened to radio program on campus. While undoubtedly some were offended, certainly no one was “harassed,” by any reasonable definition of the word. Reason and rationality, however, did not stop Occidental from finding Antebi guilty of sexual harassment.
Once the accusations against Antebi became public, the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (“FIRE”) came to the defense of students’ rights and drafted a letter to Occidental College to remind them of California’s “Leonard Law,” which forbids private institutions from punishing a student merely for offensive speech.
Instead of responding to FIRE’s serious concerns, though, Sandy Cooper (email@example.com), General Counsel for Occidental College, notified FIRE that Antebi was suddenly being “investigated” for criminal acts, such as slashing tires, distributing and abusing prescription drugs, and making late-night sexual prank calls to women. These charges were leveled during the final weeks of Antebi’s senior year and were devastating to his academics and health. This strategy appears to have been a ruthless attempt to scare organizations like FIRE from coming to Antebi’s aid. In the end, the College was unable to produce even summary evidence to bring Antebi up on student judiciary charges for any of these smokescreen accusations.
Moreover, Cooper’s legal justification for punishing Antebi’s speech relied heavily on a sexual harassment position paper by the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), buttressed by her belief that even the ACLU would agree with their punishment of him.
Too bad for Cooper, the ACLU completely disagrees with her. Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, wrote to Cooper, stating, “I am extremely concerned about Occidental’s decision to punish Jason Antebi for sexual harassment and your attempt to rely on the ACLU’s position on unprotected harassment to justify that decision.” He continued, admonishing that punishing Antebi for his speech “is inconsistent with the law as well as ACLU’s policies.”
But Occidental administrators had gone far beyond punishing “offensive” speech; theirs was an attempt to intimidate and silence speech that mocks their politically correct agenda. For example, a segment of Antebi’s radio show was titled “Token Black Girls” by an African-American friend of Antebi’s. Just the use of the term “token” was offensive enough for Title IX officer, Maryanne Horowitz (firstname.lastname@example.org), to conclude, without having actually heard the segment, that the label “is sexist as well as racist – an epithet that implies an adult has a job, or for that matter a college admission that she does not merit.” Had Horowitz bothered to listen, she’d have learned the segment actually mocked tokenism in higher education. Is anti-racist social satire now off limits at Occidental, if anyone happens to misunderstand it?
Through its actions in the Antebi case, the administration squelched diversity of thought, which is perhaps the most important type of diversity at an institution nominally devoted to intellectual and academic inquiry and scholarship. But Occidental College, it seems, is really concerned with superficial diversity and will happily trample upon diverse expressions of student speech. In fact, though the College strains to fill its classrooms with students from assorted backgrounds, it seems to prefer, even mandate uniformity in its faculty: 94 percent of the registered faculty members at Occidental are Democrats, whereas only 6 percent are Republicans. Are we to believe this constitutes diversity? Or that it signals any conscious effort on the part of the College?
Occidental will soon be feeling the backlash from punishing protected speech: FIRE is now spearheading an impressive collection of liberal, conservative and moderate national civil liberty groups to protest the College’s actions. The ACLU of Southern California, Students for Academic Freedom, Student Press Law Center, PEN Center USA are only some of Antebi’s strong supporters.
Fortunately, FIRE and the ACLU understand the difference between “offensive” and “unprotected” speech, even though liberal arts colleges like Occidental do not. Fortunately, there is no constitutional protection against speech that one may find “offensive” – if that were the case, everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Howard Stern, and your butcher to your postal worker would be in jail.
It’s time that the public, not just students, fight against these types of speech codes, which threaten to undermine the quality and diversity of thought on college campuses.