Two weeks after the creation of an online petition demanding that the campus disinvite comedian and TV host Bill Maher from speaking at the December commencement ceremony, student government officials and administrators sought to address the ongoing controversy at the ASUC Senate meeting Wednesday.
Associate Chancellor Nils Gilman and campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof responded to senators’ concerns regarding the commencement speaker and selection process in a discussion that took longer than any other item on the agenda.
Gilman and Mogulof acknowledged they were all in a “tricky spot” considering the already-sent invitation, the campus’s commitment to free speech and the importance of setting a precedent.
“The minute you start to pick and choose based on whether someone’s comments have generated (negative) feelings, you find yourself on a proverbial slippery slope,” Mogulof said at the meeting. “When does it stop? Does that mean, going forward, that we can only generate no controversy or dissension whatsoever?”
According to SQUELCH! Senator Madison Gordon, the Californians, a student group that helps organize campus events, contends that the commencement speaker selection process was “streamlined” with a push from the administration to choose Maher, as evidenced by the lack of backup speakers.
Despite the recent vote by the Californians to rescind the invitation, the administration has moved forward with its plan to keep Maher as speaker, saying the initial proposal came from the Californians.
Using people’s reactions as a “litmus test” would “lead to a situation that would hollow out this campus’s commitment to free speech and support of diversity of views,” Mogulof said. He added that the administration would support students’ voices and expressions of dissent as long as they as they were “in the context of the Principles of Community.”
CalSERVE Senator Yordanos Dejen said the keynote speaker should be inspirational and empowering to the graduates.
On his HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week, Maher said he did not want the commencement to become a “media circus” and promised that it would be a day for the graduates.
In the case that Maher uses the keynote speech to make controversial remarks, Gilman said, students have the right to and should express their disagreement because “that’s what Berkeley’s all about.”
Gilman sees the senate playing a number of different roles as they move forward with Maher presenting the keynote speech, such as inviting Maher to an open dialogue, a request the administration could help facilitate.
A bill supporting students’ call to stop Maher from presenting the keynote — sponsored by Marium Navid, who is backed by the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition — will be further discussed at the senate’s Committee on University and External Affairs meeting Monday in Anna Head Hall.
Student Action Senator Hannah Frankl said she looks forward to seeing plans of action outlined in the bill, such as the creation of committees, auditing of the commencement speaker selection process and working with the administration to address recurring campus climate issues.
The senate will reconvene Wednesday next week.