Last May, students and alumni from the Harvard Graduate School of Education sought to get Colorado state Sen. Michael Johnston disinvited as the school’s 2014 commencement speaker because they disagreed with his embrace of standardized test-based school reform. Johnston wound up speaking, but it was just one episode in what has been called “disinvitation season,” in which a speaker is lined up to appear on a college campus but then becomes the target of protesters. It happened this year to conservative George Will at Scripps College and Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice at Rutgers University, to name a few.
Now the same student group at the University of California Berkeley that selected Bill Maher as the commencement speaker in December wants to remove him because of remarks he has made about religion, according to this petition on Change.org, which is titled, “Stop Bill Maher from speaking at UC Berkeley’s December graduation.” Maher, who has made no secret of his atheism over the years, recently has made some controversial remarks about Islam on his HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher.” For example, he said on his Oct. 3 show, in which he argued with actor Ben Affleck over the issue:
“If vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe – and they do – that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS. It has too much in common with ISIS.”
The petition, which has more than 4,000 signatures, accuses Maher of racism.
But school officials are insisting that Maher be allowed to speak and won’t let the students change the commencement line-up. According to the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at UC Berkeley, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said Maher should not and would not be removed as speaker. A statement released by the university on Wednesday said:
For many years it has been the responsibility of UC Berkeley undergraduates, through a committee known as the “Californians,” to select speakers for the university’s commencement ceremonies. In August the “Californians” chose Bill Maher as the speaker for the December commencement ceremony. However, last night the “Californians” reconvened without administration participation and came to a decision that the invitation should be rescinded.
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. 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.
Finally, the unfortunate events surrounding the selection of this year’s winter commencement speaker demonstrate the need to develop a new policy for managing commencement ceremonies. 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.
Maher wrote this on his Facebook page:
Every news outlet asking me for a comment on this #Berkeley thing but then I remembered: I’VE got a show! And that’s where I’ll address it, Friday nite.
The Daily Californian quoted petition author Khwaja Ahmed, who is a member of the campus Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition, as saying:
“We’re not trying to cut down his free speech. He has his own show. He can say whatever he wants … But the way he goes about speaking is problematic because he generalizes entire communities and generations across countries with a single brush.”on Twitter @KVeklerov.