Berkeley Chancellor Blocks Bill Maher From Being Blocked

Student group that invites commencement speakers votes to rescind invitation to controversial comedian, but chancellor vetoes their move, citing the importance of free speech.

October 30, 2014

The student group that selects graduation speakers at the University of California at Berkeley voted Tuesday night to rescind the invitation to Bill Maher to address graduates in December. But Berkeley's chancellor, Nicholas B. Dirks, announced Wednesday that he would not let that vote stand, and that Maher remains the graduation speaker.

"The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech," said a statement from the university. "For that reason Chancellor Dirks has decided that the invitation will stand, and he looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements: indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them. More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative."

Berkeley officials are assuming Maher is committed to the speech. He has not formally responded to the controversy. On Twitter, he said: "Every news outlet asking me 4 comment on this Berkeley thing but then i remembered: I'VE got a show! And thats where I'll address it, Fri nite."

The choice of Maher as commencement speaker sparked anger last week over his statements criticizing Islam, although others noted that Maher is equal opportunity when it comes to those he criticizes, and that he has made both serious comments and jokes that have caused offense of many groups. More than 4,000 people have signed an online petition calling on Berkeley to rescind the invitation.

"Bill Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for. In a time where climate is a priority for all on campus, we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment," the petition says. "Bill Maher's public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities."

A counter-petition, signed by 74 people as of early this morning, urged Berkeley to stand by the invitation.

"We believe that the most effective response to offensive or misguided speech is not forced silence, but rather the response that Berkeley has always embraced: vigorous, critical engagement by opposing ideas," says the counter-petition. "We further believe that the entire academy suffers when unpopular or inflammatory ideas are denied a voice simply because their expression may cause offense or emotional pain to others. We therefore call upon our colleagues to respond to Mr. Maher’s visit not with a call to forced silence, but as an opportunity to raise awareness across campus and beyond as to their own opposing views."

The counter-petition is illustrated by an image of the cafe at Berkeley that honors the university's Free Speech Movement.

The statement from the university also suggested that the university may soon move to a new system for selecting graduation speakers. "[T]he unfortunate events surrounding the selection of this year’s winter commencement speaker demonstrate the need to develop a new policy for managing commencement ceremonies," said the university statement. "The new process will ensure that these events are handled in a manner commensurate with our values and enduring commitment to free speech. We will be announcing the new policy as soon as it is ready."

On the online petition opposing Maher's appearance, comments are already starting to appear criticizing Chancellor Dirks. One comment: "The administration claims to be upholding free speech by letting Bill Maher speak at the commencement. What the administration fails to realize is that it has turned its back on MANY other values that it is supposed to uphold such as equality and anti-discrimination. Also, having a speaker who has said offensive and ignorant things about certain members of society is not just about free speech. It is, in some way and to some extent, endorsing his beliefs since he is allowed to address the graduating class."


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