UC Berkeley chancellor sends letter to group of students regarding Bill Maher

Below is the full text of a letter sent by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on Wednesday afternoon to a group of about 20 students. The students had met with Dirks on Dec. 10 to discuss issues regarding the choice of Bill Maher as the fall commencement ceremony speaker.

Dear Students:

I want to begin by thanking all of you who joined me at University House last Wednesday to discuss a variety of important issues connected to the choice of speaker for this year’s winter commencement ceremony. I appreciate your openness to dialogue and your clear commitment to working with us in an ongoing effort to improve our campus climate. I would hope that any differences we may have will not stand in the way of collaboration around all that we have in common.

Let me first re-state that I understand and acknowledge the pain Mr. Maher’s remarks about Islam have caused many in the Muslim community nationally and here at Berkeley. I personally disagree with some of his remarks and more generally disagree with much of what I have heard him say on the subject of religion.

As a campus, however, we must take stock of two seemingly conflicting imperatives: the first, to honor and sustain the tradition of free speech and robust campus debate that has iconic status, the second, to recognize the concerns about the climate on campus for minorities and other groups that have felt stigmatized through acts and words.

Free speech is a basic right and is not only constitutionally protected but also a value that is encoded in the DNA of Berkeley.  And yet the current controversy makes clear the extent to which free speech can cause pain, offense, and even outrage.  Our history – as a campus, as a community, and indeed as a nation – makes clear this is an inevitable effect of free speech, and it is a fact that courts have invariably stricken efforts to legislate limits on free speech that may be judged as offensive or even intentionally hateful.  And yet as a campus we have, particularly lately, come to be increasingly cognizant of and concerned about the ways in which expression can create and/or intensify stereotypes – essential categories of assumption, prejudice, and attribution – about different identities and social categories.

While I recognize and agree with some of the concerns that have been expressed, any effort to constrain or limit the conditions around invitations to speak – whether at commencements or other public event – risks compromising the fundamental values that free speech protects.  Who can speak freely?  Which opinions might be justly censored?  What criteria can be imposed neutrally and fairly?  Who judges?  How can feelings of offense, or hurt, constitute legitimate grounds for limits not just on speech but on invitations to speak on campus?  Surely a university – especially this university — has an obligation to promote speech, opinion, and argument at its most robust.

Undoubtedly, a commencement ceremony is an unfortunate venue for these conflicting imperatives to play out. However, I do not have the luxury of picking and choosing when to stand firm when it comes to core beliefs. It is trying circumstances like these that pose a true test of a community’s values and principles.

There is room for improvement in our campus climate if this is to be a truly welcoming place for every single member of our community. I started off the semester talking about how a strong, supportive, and welcoming community is what makes it possible for any of us to take risks; that community is our safety net as we explore new ideas, engage with new people and perspectives, and seek to translate our beliefs and commitments into tangible form. With that in mind I very much look forward to receiving and reviewing your proposals for how we can advance on this most important of shared goals.

All best,

Nicholas Dirks