Greg in ‘Huffington Post’: 5 Important Points About the Bill Maher–UC Berkeley Controversy

November 4, 2014

The debate over whether the University of California, Berkeley should disinvite Bill Maher as its December commencement speaker is still raging on, even after the UC Berkeley administration publicly reaffirmed its invitation to Maher. As I reported last week, many critics of Maher’s are arguing that statements he has made about Islam, among other topics, render him an unacceptable speaker for the occasion. In response to some arguments commonly made by those who would have Maher disinvited, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff writes in The Huffington Post today about five important points regarding the Bill Maher–UC Berkeley controversy.

Many advocates for Maher’s disinvitation, for example, argue that in contrast to a typical campus speaking engagement during the semester, an invitation to speak at commencement constitutes a university’s endorsement of the speaker’s views. Greg responds:

This argument is nonsense. It would be literally impossible for colleges to endorse the views of every commencement speaker they’ve ever invited. For instance, Harvard hosted famous Republican Colin Powell as commencement speaker in 1993, followed by even more famous Democrat Al Gore in 1994. Are we to believe that either invitation signalled Harvard’s institutional endorsement of the obviously conflicting views of both of these speakers? If not, then why would any reasonable person ascribe all of Maher’s views to Berkeley?

The “but speaking at commencement is an honor” argument is also a red herring, as it relies on the idea that in order to be a commencement speaker, a university has to agree with everything you have said, which is, again, impossible. While my college years (the mid ’90s) were no great model for the best principles of free speech and pluralism, my fellow students and I at least understood that people were invited to speak on campus because we believed they would have something interesting to say, not because the university endorsed everything they had to say. The problem, of course, is that if every student’s potential objections were treated as vetoes, it would be impossible to find a graduation speaker who had done anything serious or interesting with his or her life.

Read the rest of Greg’s commentary about the controversy over at The Huffington Post.

Schools:  University of California, Berkeley

Cases:  Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers