U.C. Berkeley administration keeps Bill Maher as commencement speaker

"It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements"

Published October 31, 2014 4:09PM (EDT)

Bill Maher                         (HBO/Janet Van Ham)
Bill Maher (HBO/Janet Van Ham)

Last Thursday, students at University of California at Berkeley started a Change.org petition aimed at disinviting Bill Maher from speaking at a December commencement ceremony. The administration, in holding with U.C. Berkeley's tradition of free speech -- even when deemed provocative -- decided not to rescind Maher's invitation.

The students were troubled by Maher's recent controversial statements -- and heated debate with Ben Affleck -- about Islam during an Oct. 6, episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher," where he stated the following:

"One reason they don’t get exposed is because they’re afraid to speak out because it’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book."

The petition, which received more than 4,000 signatures, as of Friday morning, calls Maher a "blatant bigot and racist." And the drive to stop him from speaking has drummed up just as much controversy as Maher's initial statement, as it walks the delicate line of silencing the constitutional right to free speech.

The administration fell on the side of free speech. After the student body tasked with selecting the commencement speaker, the "Californians," reconvened to disinvite Maher, the administration decided not to recognize that decision, releasing the following statement:

"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the “Californians” reconvened without administration participation and came to a decision that the invitation should be rescinded.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 has not yet responded to the controversy, posting on his Facebook page that he'll address the issue on his show this Friday.

The student who authored the petition, Khwaja Ahmed, member of the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition (MEMSA) told the Daily Californian:

"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."

Maher's comments have opened up a greater argument about religion and liberalism, including responses from Sam Harris (who took park in the debate) and Reza Aslan.

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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Atheism Bill Maher Commencement Speech Islam Petition Religion University Of California-berkeley