Chancellor ‘looks forward to welcoming’ Bill Maher despite student opposition

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A student group charged with selecting commencement speakers convened Tuesday night and voted to rescind an invitation for comedian Bill Maher to speak at December commencement, but campus administration announced late Wednesday afternoon it would not be accepting the group’s decision.

The Californians, a leadership organization that selects keynote speakers, chose Maher in August. But the group reassembled Tuesday night without administrative participation and voted overwhelmingly to uninvite Maher. Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, however, decided the invitation will stand and “looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher,” according to a campus statement released Wednesday.

“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 read.

The student group met after an online petition, “Stop Bill Maher from speaking at UC Berkeley’s December graduation,” was put forth by students and began circulating last week. The petition had gained more than 4,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening.

With the petition, UC Berkeley students joined those at a handful of other college campuses protesting commencement speakers who included former chancellor Robert Birgeneau at Haverford College, Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University and Christine Lagarde at Smith College.

Maher, who hosts the HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” and regularly denounces religion, most recently received backlash after an Oct. 3 segment in which he criticized liberals for not acting according to “liberal principles” by not condemning Islam.

“It’s the only religion that acts like the Mafia — that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book,” Maher said during the segment.

On his official Facebook page, Maher said he would address the UC Berkeley commencement issue on his Friday night show.

According to Gina Hwang, student director of the Californians, the group had met with two representatives from University Relations earlier Tuesday, who told the group it would have the power to make the final call on whether to rescind the invitation.

The Californians was not informed that campus administrators rejected its decision until the statement was released. Hwang said the group requested to meet with administrators before a final decision was made, but they did not respond.

“We’re not trying to cut down his free speech,” said petition author Khwaja Ahmed, who is a member of the campus Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition. “He has his own show. He can say whatever he wants … But the way he goes about speaking is problematic because he generalizes entire communities and generations across countries with a single brush.”

Ahmed, a UC Berkeley junior transfer student, pointed to “degrading” comments Maher has made regarding women and religions, saying they serve to marginalize communities.

“Giving this guy the honor and prestige to congratulate UC Berkeley’s graduating class is where I have a problem,” Ahmed said about free speech issues, adding that it was “disappointing” to hear that the administration will proceed with the invitation.

University Relations spoke with an alumnus who had a connection to Maher and put forth the option to the Californians several months ago, Hwang said. The group reviewed those in favor and those against Maher speaking on campus but eventually voted after a two-hour meeting Tuesday night to suggest rescinding the invitation.

“This University has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative,” the campus statement read.

Due to the “unfortunate events” surrounding the selection of Maher, the campus announced it will be moving forward with a new policy for managing commencement ceremonies.

Kimberly Veklerov is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KVeklerov.