Students spring into opposition after Bill Maher announced as keynote speaker

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Update: The campus group in charge of selecting commencement speakers voted to rescind the invitation to Bill Maher. Read more here.

In response to an announcement last week that comedian Bill Maher would speak at UC Berkeley’s fall commencement, an online petition started circulating Thursday that demanded that the campus rescind its invitation.

The Change.org petition was authored by ASUC Senator Marium Navid, who is backed by the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition, or MEMSA, and Khwaja Ahmed, an active MEMSA member. The petition, which urges students to boycott the decision and asks the campus to stop him from speaking, has already gathered more than 1,400 signatures as of Sunday.

Maher, a stand-up comedian and host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, is best known for his often-polarizing political commentary. Recently, Maher faced some backlash after controversial remarks regarding Islam during a segment on his Oct. 3 show.

“It’s not an issue of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of campus climate,” Navid said. “The First Amendment gives him the right to speak his mind, but it doesn’t give him the right to speak at such an elevated platform as the commencement. That’s a privilege his racist and bigoted remarks don’t give him.”

Last spring, 50 students and professors at Haverford College protested the invitation of former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau to speak at their commencement because of his handling of the Occupy Cal protests in 2011. In response, Birgeneau declined the invitation.

The Californians, a student group that helps organize campus events, contacts and nominates commencement speakers, but University Relations has the final say in confirming the selection. Maher reached out to UC Berkeley asking to present the address in August.

Despite her disagreement with his views, Claire Chiara, president of Berkeley College Republicans and a former staff member of The Daily Californian, said she has no issue with his confirmation as commencement speaker.

“He’s a very prominent public figure, and I’m certain that he’s not going to treat a commencement speech at a prestigious university the way he treats his talk show,” Chiara said.

Navid, however, said a different set of expectations must be held for a commencement speaker. According to her, Maher insults people of all religions and backgrounds.

“(Jon) Stewart and (Stephen) Colbert are critical of religion, too, but Bill Maher has, on several occasions, said to rise up against religious people and religious institutions and take action,” Ahmed said.

Navid’s office launched a campaign called “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech” asking students to contact Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Helena Weiss-Duman, the director of external relations.

Weiss-Duman could not be reached for comment

While campus senior Alex Chang understands that Maher is a comedian who uses satire, he believes that having Maher give the keynote address “could definitely ruin someone’s graduation day.”

The commencement ceremony will be held Dec. 20 at 3 p.m. in Haas Pavilion.

Contact Heyun Jeong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @heyunjeong.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated the air date of a Real Time with Bill Maher episode as Oct. 6. In fact, it aired Oct. 3.