Editorial, Opinion

Editorial: Championing Free Speech, Even on Commencement Day

By The Editorial Board

After seeing students across the country protest coveted commencement speakers last year (among them, the former secretary of state, head of the International Monetary Fund and  the current attorney general), it was not surprising when students at U.C. Berkeley last week began protesting their university’s decision to host Bill Maher as commencement speaker.

After the mid-October announcement, a student group at the university issued a statement saying that Maher was not welcome on their campus. “Bill Maher is a blatant bigot and racist,” the students wrote, “who has no respect for the values U.C. Berkeley students and administration stand for.”

The claim was in response to a bit on his talk show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” during which he labeled Islam an intolerant religion, based on a thorough Pew Research Center survey last year of Muslim attitudes based on 38,000 interviews in 39 countries.

The survey found that more than half of Muslims said homosexuality was immoral and that a wife should obey her husband without exception. Most Muslims in at least a half-dozen countries said they favored “executing  those who leave Islam,” and the survey found there was strong support among the group for “honor killings,” or killing someone for committing a serious sin, such having sex out of wedlock.

On his show, Maher took a jab at the religion, calling it “the only religion that acts like the Mafia.” He went on to say that progressive values favored by liberals are intolerable by most Muslims.

All of this, though, is distracting from the issue.

His opponents — young Americans who overwhelmingly identify as proponents of free speech — claim not to be limiting free speech. Rather, they are hoping to censor speech that is offensive to them.

As of Tuesday, a Change.org petition, titled “Berekly Stop Bill Maher from speaking at U.C. Berkeley’s December graduation,” had garnered more than 5,000 signatures.

“Too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the university were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities,” the petition argues. “It is the responsibility of the University of California to protect all students and uphold a standard of civility.”

Luckily on Wednesday, the university released a statement saying they would not rescind its invitation.

“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,” read the statement. “For that reason Chancellor Dirks has decided that the invitation will stand, and he looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus.”

The statement continued: “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.”

As debates regarding free speech rage on, it is difficult to sympathize with the students of U.C. Berkeley.

In the cases where a university submits to students protests — resulting in rescinding an invitation — it is not the speaker who loses. Instead, it is the university administrators who folded to the demands of close-minded students who deem themselves the arbiters of all things good and all topics of discussion acceptable.

Without a doubt, even if Bill Maher was disinvited from U.C. Berkeley, he would continue with his talk show, making use of his right to speech on his HBO program. Despite a brief issue for his public relations team, being disinvited to speak would be unlikely to result in any stain on his image.

Maher clearly acknowledged this while speaking on his show last week.  “It’s not my reputation on the line,” he deadpanned. “It’s yours.”

Inviting a speaker is not equivalent to endorsing everything he or she has ever done or said. Inviting a speaker to commencement is simply a claim by a university that someone has an interesting point of view to share with the senior class. People need to understand the difference between total endorsement and providing a platform for someone to spark a discussion.

Here’s to hoping that more universities (like Berkeley) and more speakers (like Maher) make the responsible decision in the face of student protests. While student protests can spark valuable dialogue and should be protected as free speech, they should not seek to impede or punish the free speech of another group or individual. Students often value free speech until the speech offends them, but the truth is that all protected free speech, even if it is unsavory or offensive, should be respected. We hope that Fordham’s administration will remember this  if it receives pushback from members of the student body for future commencement speakers.

November 5, 2014

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