Despite the uproar about the Federal Communications Commission’s aggressive
attempts to clean up America’s airwaves, a shocking case of censorship that
recently occurred in California has garnered precious little attention. What makes
this case even more distressing is that it originated in a medium where one would
expect free speech to be sacrosanct: college radio.
Jason Antebi, a senior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, not only lost his
job at the student radio station, but was also found guilty by campus officials
of "sexual harassment" for the content of his radio show. Antebi’s
show was one of the station’s most popular, probably due, in part, to his
acerbic parody and bawdy humor. Antebi was an "equal opportunity offender."
His targets ranged from Bill O’Reilly to Al Franken, Democrats to Jehovah’s
Witnesses, campus safety officers to space aliens.
But this past March, after three years of broadcasting, Antebi was hastily fired.
Why? Student leaders Antebi had mocked on-air filed sexual harassment complaints
against him. Antebi called one a "bearded feminist" and the other –
a male student – a "douche." Insults like these are hardly rare
on college campuses and par for the course on college radio, and, fortunately,
for satirists, commentators and comedians everywhere, fit well within the protections
of free speech.
The complaining students claimed that Antebi’s show promoted "disrespect
and slander" against "women, diversity and Occidental College."
Attempting to invoke the protection of federal civil rights law, the offended
students sought to prove that Antebi’s show created a "hostile environment"
and "harassed" both them and his audience in general.
Colleges have used federal harassment law as an excuse to punish protected expression
for years now. To stop this abuse, the Department of Education issued a letter
last year explaining that federal law cannot be used to punish speech that is
merely "offensive." With such a clear statement from the federal government,
the case should have died quickly.
But instead, Occidental plowed ahead, even going so far as to claim that punishing
his on-air antics was consistent with DOE policies. Despite the principled objections
of the radio station’s student management, whose purview ostensibly included
such decisions, Antebi was fired by Occidental’s Dean of Students. Of far
grater concern, in April, Occidental’s Title IX officer ruled that Antebi’s
broadcast (from a station with a signal so weak that it doesn’t even reach
off campus) constituted sexual harassment against his audience.
From a legal standpoint, Occidental’s justification of its actions is wholly
unsustainable. One cannot be sexually discriminated against by a program that
mocked everyone indiscriminately. Furthermore, how can someone be sexually harassed
by a program they voluntarily tuned in to? (In this case the offended students
reportedly had to have one of their friends tape the show so that they could be
offended by it.) As the radio station’s student director observed in her
sagacious letter of protest to the Dean, the "beauty of radio is that when
you don’t like what you’re listening to, you can turn the dial."
What makes Antebi’s story even more compelling is Occidental’s alarming
actions after the complaints were filed. In March, Occidental’s President
referenced the incident involving Antebi as justification for dissolving the school’s
student government, thereby absorbing nearly half a million dollars of student
activity fees normally distributed by student representatives. While not citing
Antebi by name, President Ted Mitchell referred to "examples of abusive,
intimidating, harassing behavior that have no place on our campus" that were
"masquerading as open expression" as justification for the dissolution.
Further, when the Foundation for the Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) came
to Antebi’s defense, they were informed that besides sexual harassment, Antebi
was also suddenly being investigated for telephone and e-mail harassment, vandalism
and slashing tires. However, Antebi was never even charged by the campus judiciary
in connection with any of these incidents. FIRE concluded that this campaign of
misrepresentations and false accusations was Occidental’s desperate attempt
to justify its outrageous actions post hoc and to dissuade groups like FIRE from
Fortunately, FIRE was not deterred and has protested Occidental’s actions.
Antebi was allowed to graduate, but his campus conviction remains, the student
government is gone, and Occidental is trying to ignore its abuse of law and the
facts. To let Occidental’s actions stand is to tolerate a burgeoning definition
of harassment that could devastate broadcasters’ and journalists’ rights
all across the country. Also, it signals to colleges that it’s OK to abuse
your students’ rights and misrepresent facts when faced with rightful public
criticism. Finally, it declares that society has accepted that our colleges and
universities are no longer places where young citizens enjoy the greatest expressive
rights, but rather bastions of unfair and selective censorship. Both the media
and public need to fight these kind of abuses of power, before the new national
crusade for propriety reduces too many of our society’s nonconformists, critics
and dissenters to silence.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the Director of Legal and Public Advocacy for
the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will Creeley is a student at New York University School of Law and a FIRE legal
researcher. Both live in Brooklyn.
© Greg Lukianoff and Will Creeley. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information
Article posted on 12/7/2004
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