LOS ANGELES, March 15, 2005—Today, former student Jason Antebi sued Occidental College in Los Angeles for millions of dollars for maliciously violating his basic rights and those of the entire student community. In spring 2004, Occidental administrators fired Antebi from his position as host of a popular student radio program and found him guilty of sexual harassment for satirical jokes he made on the air. Occidental then used the controversy as a pretext for dissolving the entire student government (of which Antebi was a vice president) and assuming control of nearly half a million dollars in funding from student fees. When the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) took up Antebi’s case, the college began an aggressive and far-reaching campaign of false accusations and misrepresentations to justify its actions.
“Occidental College is unmatched when it comes to administrative abuse of power,” remarked David French, FIRE’s president. “Its unprecedented and shameful campaign against Jason Antebi was scandalous, and its lack of respect for students’ legally guaranteed right to free speech is disgraceful.”
The lawsuit filed today accuses Occidental of committing a variety of offenses against Antebi, the most obvious being the violation of his free speech rights under the constitutions of California and of the United States. While Occidental is a private college and would not ordinarily be obligated to the First Amendment, California’s “Leonard Law” grants students at private universities in that state the same free speech rights as their counterparts at public universities. Occidental College also promises to respect students’ freedom of speech and can be held accountable for flagrantly violating its own policies.
FIRE first wrote Occidental President Ted Mitchell on March 30, 2004, to condemn the college’s actions, which included firing Antebi and charging him with sexual harassment for bawdy jokes on his radio show after student government rivals filed complaints. FIRE soon received a response from Occidental General Counsel Sandra Cooper that 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, 2004, FIRE responded with a detailed 28-page refutation of Cooper’s claims. The ACLU of Southern California also weighed in on Antebi’s side, prompting Cooper to claim, absurdly, that the ACLU did not understand its own policies. FIRE then informed Occidental’s board of trustees of the situation, but received no response.
Antebi’s suit against Occidental was brought by Richard Lloyd Sherman and Craig Englander, partners at Sherman & Nathanson, a law firm in Beverly Hills, California. The complaint, filed in California Superior Court, asks for millions of dollars in damages as well as declaratory relief that would strike down the Occidental policies that allowed Antebi to be found guilty of sexual harassment for his on-air comments.
The complaint explains that Occidental officials “blatantly misrepresented the facts of Plaintiff’s situation, in a knowing and malicious attempt to prevent civil liberties groups and other potential supporters from coming to his defense. The College’s Dean of Students, General Counsel and other university officials painted Plaintiff as a racist, criminal, drug pusher, advocate of violence, unethical student representative, and as a person responsible for an atmosphere of terror on campus in which women were ‘unable to concentrate, sleep, or even walk across campus without fear.’”
To defend the rights of Jason Antebi, FIRE helped assemble an impressive coalition of organizations to condemn Occidental’s actions including the ACLU of Southern California, Students for Academic Freedom, PEN USA, and the Student Press Law Center.
“While we seriously doubt that Jason would have been allowed to graduate without FIRE’s aid, Occidental has yet to repudiate its actions and its campaign of deception,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “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.”
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 thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard Lloyd Sherman, Attorney, Sherman & Nathanson: 310-246-0321; email@example.com
Elizabeth Brennan, ACLU of Southern California: 213-977-9500 x252; firstname.lastname@example.org