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UC Berkeley Rejects Students’ Demands to Disinvite Bill Maher

Torch readers know that FIRE and other free speech advocates have had much to criticize the University of California, Berkeley about lately. Many have pointed out that UC Berkeley’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement rings somewhat hollow in light of its numerous speech codes. And last month, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks caused alarm with an email in which he argued for civility as a necessary limit on free speech. Happily, following widespread criticism, Dirks soon sent an email clarifying that freedom of expression should not be hindered in this manner.

In a positive development, it looks like Dirks might have learned from this fall’s criticism: He is now resisting calls from students to disinvite Bill Maher as the university’s December commencement speaker.

For those of you unfamiliar with the controversy, a recent online petition argues that the comedian and political commentator “is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for” and asks the university to rescind its invitation to Maher. The petition says that the university must “uphold a standard of civility,” and that “[t]oo many students are marginalized” by Maher’s “offensive” and “dangerous” statements—particularly about Islam. As of today, the petition has garnered over 4,300 signatures.

Like so many who call for censorship, the petitioners nevertheless claim to value free speech. The Los Angeles Times’s Larry Gordon relayed remarks from UC System student regent Sadia Saifuddin, who said:

I can’t condone the university inviting a speaker that threatens the campus climate of our university. … I believe there is a fundamental difference between free speech and hate speech as well as a difference between Maher being allowed to express his views, and being given the honor of giving the keynote address sponsored by the university … I don’t stand for [any] university-sponsored action that makes students feel unsafe and unwelcome.

Legally, of course, “hate speech,” which has no specific legal definition, is protected speech. (Elizabeth Nolan Brown recently addressed this issue with remarkable clarity for Reason, in the context of the controversy over University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s decision not to hire Steven Salaita for his tweets, which many called “hate speech.”) Robin Abcarian, also writing for the Times, responded to Saifuddin’s statement:

Maher may be willfully ignorant, and he may be insensitive, but surely the graduating students of Berkeley are smart enough -- and resilient enough -- to grasp that the man does not threaten their safety. He may be promulgating stereotypes, but he's not advocating violence.

Exactly. Thankfully, some UC Berkeley students seem to understand that censorship is not the answer to speech with which one disagrees. Inside Higher Ed captured some comments posted on a Daily Californian article about the controversy:

UCB is a bastion of freedoms; students died fighting for a university where Free Speech could prevail, diversity survive and serious debate occur. Banning Maher is a travesty, an act of gross misunderstanding of robust discourse. If Maher offers a faulty argument, critique it with eloquence and clarity.

Yesterday brought us a “bad news, good news” situation. The “Californians,” the undergraduate committee tasked with recommending commencement speakers (who initially chose Bill Maher to speak in December), voted to rescind the invitation.

The university administration has rejected this vote, however, and is standing by the decision to have Maher speak. A statement posted on UC Berkeley’s website reads in part:

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.

FIRE commends Chancellor Dirks and the rest of the administration for taking a stand in favor of a true “marketplace of ideas” on campus. This is the spirit that should be shared by everyone celebrating the Free Speech Movement.

As Abcarian wrote, “These constant fights over college commencement speakers are becoming so tedious.” FIRE agrees. But it’s good to see a university refuse to cave to pressure from students who simply don’t want to hear viewpoints with which they disagree.

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