Update 11/1/2014: This story has been updated to reflect interviews with campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, ASUC Senator Marium Navid and fourth-year UC Berkeley law student James Dillon.
Comedian and TV host Bill Maher announced Friday his intent to speak at UC Berkeley’s December commencement ceremony despite opposition from some campus groups.
Maher paused his normal roundtable discussion during his HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” to directly address for the first time the UC Berkeley controversy and claims of hate speech from a student-run petition that refers to him as a “bigot and racist.”
“I’m happy to (speak at the commencement), because though I never attended Berkeley, I was very aware of their place in the American debate on the far left,” Maher said on his show. “And they invited me because it was the 50th anniversary of something that is legendary on that campus, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore.”
The Californians, a student group that helps organize campus events, originally welcomed Maher in August but withdrew its invitation days after a Change.org petition started by ASUC Senator Marium Navid received more than 1,500 signatures. Campus administration, however, maintained in a campuswide statement that they and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks would stand by the invitation.
Going into the show, the campus did not know how Maher planned to respond. Campus administration acknowledged that welcoming and subsequently not disinviting Maher as a keynote speaker has distressed many members of the campus community, both those who support and oppose him coming to speak at commencement.
“It’s hard to say anybody’s happy when people are so clearly upset,” said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. “But at the same time, the chancellor believes this is a matter of principle.”
In an effort to deflect allegations of bigotry, Maher referenced an interview by HuffPost Live with the man he says is his most ardent critic, author and religious scholar Reza Aslan, to defend himself against the student opposition.
“If even my most respectable critic who’s a Muslim says (I’m not a bigot), what leg does this protest have to stand on?” Maher said. “That’s how it’s done, kids. Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”
Still, Navid criticized the campus for not responding in a manner in line with student concerns regardless of the character of Maher’s speech, calling the controversy a symptom of the administration ignoring campus climate.
“The issue is that he has said these things in the past, and they are hurting students today,” Navid said, speaking about Maher. “It’s not OK for him to go and stand in front of them and be given that honor of being a speaker.”
James Dillon, a fourth-year UC Berkeley graduate student, posted a petition Oct. 23 asking the campus not to rescind its invitation. After the campus stood by its decision Wednesday to welcome Maher, Dillon said the chancellor made the right choice given that the invitation had already been extended.
While neither Change.org petition requires the signee to be a student, almost 5,000 have signed Navid’s petition, and Dillon’s is approaching the 500 mark as of Saturday evening.
“I want to be very clear that this is an issue about the value of free expression on campus, the need to resist the temptation to silence or shutdown speech that makes us uncomfortable,” Dillon said. “I don’t think that’s what Berkeley has been about for much of its history, and I don’t think that’s what it should be about today.”
During his Friday-night show, Maher also took the opportunity to address his concern that by accepting the commencement invite, it could turn into a “media circus” and draw attention away from the graduating class and instead onto the controversy that may erupt.
“I don’t want to do that — it’s the only reason I would ever pull out. … I promise this will be your day,” Maher said. “It’s a commencement speech. The issue is you.”
Despite his concern, Maher promised attendees he would offer advice that could help in life after graduation. He then pleaded to college students nationwide to “weigh in” on the campus protest.
“My reputation isn’t on the line,” Maher said. “Yours is.”