Occidental College has shut down its bickering student government for the rest of the school year -- a rare move intended to cool off what officials said was "a culture of acrimony" but which is drawing protest from civil libertarians.
The college's president, Theodore Mitchell, also postponed this week's student elections until the fall. In a statement released to the 1,840-student Eagle Rock campus this week, Mitchell said he was taking the actions to halt personal attacks between political rivals.
Mitchell said that college staff and students have been the targets of "harassing phone calls, e-mail spam and threatening letters." He added that the administration in the last two months has received "an unacceptable number of complaints and cross-complaints" involving student government leaders.
Officials of the liberal arts campus said they are conducting disciplinary reviews of "at least 10" students. Anyone determined to be at fault would face penalties ranging up to expulsion. Though officials declined to reveal details of those cases, they said none involved physical assaults.
At the center of this situation is not any major policy decision by the student senate, which has authority over a $441,000 budget and employs almost 100 students. Instead, campus officials say it grew out of personal disputes and nasty allegations in student government over the last year and worsened during the now-postponed election campaign.
According to various accounts, one candidate was wrongly accused in voice-mail messages left for students of being thrown out of a student program because of a sexual harassment complaint.
Campus officials said the government shutdown was not directed at any single student or event. But several student leaders said the action was linked partly to controversies this year surrounding a student government vice president -- Jason Antebi -- who was removed by the Occidental administration last month from his job as co-host of a "shock jock"-style campus radio show.
Antebi, a senior who by many accounts was one of the most powerful figures in student government, said he was notified that he also is a target of a disciplinary complaint lodged by three students. He said they accused him of sexual harassment because of remarks made on his March 11 radio show.
A recording of part of the program obtained by The Times revealed that Antebi urged listeners in general to call in with their "rape victim stories." He also said the staffers of the campus weekly newspaper were "stupid retards." The complaint also accused him of mocking members of student government.
Antebi defended his radio show as "satire, parody and extreme exaggeration," and he likened himself to controversial radio personality Howard Stern, who has had his own regulatory troubles. "Maybe some people found it offensive, but it's not sexual harassment," Antebi said.
He said the complaint came from opponents who promoted an unsuccessful recall campaign against him earlier this year. Antebi said he also has been a target of criticism by administrators and others because he espoused conservative causes at a school where he says liberalism dominates.
Mitchell's temporary shutdown of student government -- and Antebi's removal from the radio show -- were criticized as "an incredible message" to send to students by Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. The national group advocates for civil liberties in academia; it filed a protest with the college on Antebi's behalf.
"How are students supposed to learn respect for a system of government when their school treats free speech, debate and democracy as nuisances, which is essentially what they've done here? Instead of trying to actually fix the problem, they've just decided to completely do away with student democracy," Lukianoff said.
Future student officials and radio hosts, he added, "now know to beware of the administration -- that they will go to extraordinary lengths to stop speech that they find offensive and to prevent senators that they dislike from exercising their power."
Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said that he has not investigated the Occidental situation, but that the student government shutdown is a worrisome development.
"People should be concerned, and say to themselves, 'Well, wait a minute. What's a liberal arts school teaching students about government and self-government if it's shutting down its student government?' "
Occidental administrators denied that their suspension of student government had raised broad issues about democracy or free speech.