The brouhaha that has erupted at UC Berkeley in the past week over invited winter commencement speaker Bill Maher seems to be gaining momentum. The student group in charge of selecting graduation speakers voted on Tuesdays to withdraw the invitation sent to media presence Bill Maher to address winter graduates in December. Group members have turned against Mr. Maher due to some of his recently expressed opinions criticizing Islam. But Cal Berkeley chancellor, Nicholas B. Dirks was unmoved by the vote.
In spite of more than 4,000 signatures on an online petition calling for UC Berkeley to rescind its invitation to Maher, the invitation still stands and Maher remains the commencement speaker.
In a statement from the university, the decision was clear. “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,” The statement continued, “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.”
As for Bill Maher, he seemingly wants to ignore the controversy, formally at least, though on Twitter he posted, “Every news outlet asking me 4 comment on this Berkeley thing but then i remembered: I’VE got a show! And thats where I’ll address it, Fri nite.” So there you go, though not quite a response.
Countering the larger group hoping to see Maher be uninvited is a smaller petition that as of Thursday morning had gathered 74 signatures, urging the university to stand by its decision to keep Maher as graduation speaker.
“We believe that the most effective response to offensive or misguided speech is not forced silence, but rather the response that Berkeley has always embraced: vigorous, critical engagement by opposing ideas,” says the counter-petition. “We further believe that the entire academy suffers when unpopular or inflammatory ideas are denied a voice simply because their expression may cause offense or emotional pain to others. We therefore call upon our colleagues to respond to Mr. Maher’s visit not with a call to forced silence, but as an opportunity to raise awareness across campus and beyond as to their own opposing views.” An image of the Berkeley cafe that honors the university’s Free Speech Movement illustrates the petition.
While Berkeley will not rescind Maher’s invitation, the statement from the university also suggested a change to how graduation speakers are selected may be on its way. “[T]he unfortunate events surrounding the selection of this year’s winter commencement speaker demonstrate the need to develop a new policy for managing commencement ceremonies,” said the university statement.
“The new process will ensure that these events are handled in a manner “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,” said the university statement. “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.”
The online petition opposing Maher’s appearance now boasts comments criticizing Chancellor Dirks. One comment says, “The administration claims to be upholding free speech by letting Bill Maher speak at the commencement. What the administration fails to realize is that it has turned its back on MANY other values that it is supposed to uphold such as equality and anti-discrimination.
Also, having a speaker who has said offensive and ignorant things about certain members of society is not just about free speech. It is, in some way and to some extent, endorsing his beliefs since he is allowed to address the graduating class.”
Hopefully students would uphold their same value system when similar hate speech is directed toward other and all groups as well.
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