THE BLOG
10/30/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Let Bill Maher Speak at UC Berkeley!

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Free Speech Under Fire On American Campuses

Fifty years ago this month, the University of California, Berkeley, became the vanguard of the free speech movement when left leaning Mario Savio led a movement to challenge campus restrictions on free expression. This week's attempted revocation of HBO Real Time host Bill Maher's invitation to deliver UC Berkeley's fall commencement threatened the institution's proud legacy. The administration rightly sets an important example to counter the disturbing nationwide trend of campus censorship by overruling the proposed revocation.

The Supreme Court's rationale in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), invalidating compulsory school flag salutes, holds true over a half century later here as well:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

There has been a disturbing, often de facto, censorship of important, yet controversial speakers, by a community of progressives, to which I belong. The targets are often controversial speakers, some of whom are conservatives. Just this month three time Pulitzer Prize winner Washington Post photojournalist Michel du Cille was disinvited from Syracuse University over fear that he covered Ebola in Africa three weeks earlier. Other censored folks include former NYPD Commisioner Ray Kelley, former Secretary of State Condelezza Rice, International Monetary Fund Christine Lagard, columnist George Will, and ironically former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg roundly criticized the practice at Harvard's Commencement last May:

This spring, it has been disturbing to see a number of college commencement speakers withdraw -- or have their invitations rescinded -- after protests from students and -- to me, shockingly -- from senior faculty and administrators who should know better.... In each case, liberals silenced a voice -- and denied an honorary degree -- to individuals they deemed politically objectionable. This is an outrage.

Bill and Controversy: A Marriage Made in Heaven

Maher, 58, was invited in August by a committee of undergraduate students, called "The Californians" who for years selected commencement speakers. The Cornell educated social satirist, Emmy nominee and stand up comedian is known for his biting, often mocking, commentary on important public issues, like religious and political hypocrisy. He has personally felt the sting of controversy when his ABC show was dropped in 2002 after he opined:

We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly. You're right.

Good Bill Hunting

He courted controversy, yet again, on his October 3 HBO show. There, Maher and fellow atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris got into a heated debate on Islam with Berkeley born actor Ben Affleck. Affleck called Maher's homogenous views on Islam "gross and racist." Affleck rightly stated that Maher's criticism of Islam was an exercise of "painting the whole religion with that broad brush." Maher pointedly responded, "[I]t's the only religion that acts like the mafia that will f*****g kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book. There's a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24/7..." Harris, added, "We have to acknowledge that Islam has doctrines like jihad and martyrdom and death to apostates, which are central to the faith in the way that they aren't in other faiths." Harris also insultingly called the faith "the mother lode of bad ideas." Maher has consistently maintained that the American left has been hypocritical in how it treats Islam on such issues as gender and sexual orientation equality, free expression, and religious conversion.

Maher's televised dust-up on Islam went viral on both the Internet as well as on cable news and prominent op-ed pages. The commentary was often critical not only of Maher's broad-brush condemnations, but also of the real examples of intolerance found in certain segments of the vast Muslim world community. The debate's aftermath advanced the discussion of both Islam, the scourge of anti-Islamic prejudice and the real problem of a Salafist extremist minority within the faith.

Whose Party Is It?

The telecast also prompted a student-led petition that generated thousands of signatures in support of revoking Maher's invitation. The petition argued that Maher's religious bigotry and "dangerous rhetoric" ran counter to the campus community:

The students at the University of California at Berkeley represent a diverse array of students from all walks of life. Every semester a commencement speaker is given the privilege of inspiring a class of talented and capable students. This year, UC Berkeley has chosen to invite Bill Maher to speak. Bill Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for. In a time where climate is a priority for all on campus, we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment. Bill Maher's public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities. Too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities.

After the petition generated national attention, the committee reconvened without any administrators and "suggested" that Maher's invitation be rescinded, despite the fact that his anti-Islamic criticism is hardly a secret as it has been publicized for years in the national media.

The UC Berkeley Chancellor on Wednesday thoughtfully announced that the administration was rejecting the committee's reversal of their previous decision:

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. For that reason Chancellor Dirks has decided that the invitation will stand, and he looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher's prior statements: indeed, the administration's position on Mr. Maher's opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them. More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative.

Unlike Other UC Speakers, at Least Maher Is Ready for Primetime

As Chancellor Nicholas Dirks pointed out UC has consistently invited provocative speakers to public campuses. The very principle that protects Maher's right to speak, has also rightly protected a continuous stream of brilliant and not so brilliant Muslim speakers over the years to campuses throughout the California public university system. Ironically, some of those invited speakers also include real nutjob examples of the very stereotypical caricatures that Maher routinely relies upon to fallaciously paint Islam in a negative light. Take, for example, Abdel Malik Ali, a frequent speaker throughout the UC system, including Berkeley:

The recipe for how we come to power: From an Islamic movement we graduate to an Islamic revolution, then to an Islamic state....When it's all over, the only one standing is gonna be us. ... We must implement Islam as a totality ... [where] Allah controls every place -- the home, the classroom, the science lab, the halls of Congress.
Liars, straight up liars, Rupert Murdoch Zionist Jew, Zionist Jew owns Fox News.
You know what I'm saying, because they're [Zionists or their supporters] the ones who did it [9/11] anyway.
They [Zionist Jews] do things [World Trade Center 1993 bombings] to make people think that it's Muslims when it is actually them behind the scenes.
If you talk about the disproportionate numbers of Jews, Zionist Jews, in the media, in finance and foreign policy, that's a crime, that's a crime [under the Shepard Byrd Hate Crime Act].

Free speech principles have protected numerous other wackjobs to speak freely at UC campus events. Imam Musa blamed the government for 9/11 and Jews for the slave trade at a UC, Irvine, lecture. Despite a record of virulent anti-Semitism, Mohammad al Asi has been invited to speak in the UC system. Al Asi has argued that thousands of Israeli Jews skipped work to escape 9/11. The erudite humanist and promoter of Holocaust denier Nazi Ahmed Huber has also written: "It is precisely what qualifies Yahud [Jews] for displacement, dispossession and depression. That is why they have been stamped with shame, mortification and the wrath of the Almighty." In a 2001 Washington, D.C. speech he stated: "We have a psychosis in the Jewish community that is unable to coexist equally and brotherly with other human beings."

Yet another marvelous speaker invited to both my University and UC, Irvine was firebrand convert Yvonne Ridley. She wrote that the mastermind of the Chechen school massacre was a "fearless" martyr who led an "admirable" struggle. She also called hook handed British extremist Abu Hamza al Masri "quite sweet, really," while criticizing his moderate Muslim detractors. He was recently convicted in federal district court of 11 counts of terrorism. She further wrote that a series of hotel bombings included not only a wedding party with Americans, but also "martyrdom operations" at Jordanian bars where "we know alcohol is strictly haram, it's an Islamic ruling which the King of Jordan chooses to openly ignore, and in a Muslim country."

It is interesting that the Council on American Islamic Relations, which rightly condemns broad-brushing all Muslims as terrorists, goes on to basically broad-brush Maher as a terrorist by likening his invitation to that of the Klan's Grand Dragon. Well they certainly are extremism experts as they've invited Nazi follower Al Baker, as well as Abdel Malik Ali and Yvonne Ridley to speak at their functions!

Bill and Me: It's Complicated

I am in a somewhat unusual, yet philosophically consistent, position to unequivocally champion the cause of Bill Maher's blunt freedom of speech on topics like Islam and violence, as I passionately challenged him on those very issues on his national television show just last year. While countering Islamophbia is a priority for the university center I founded, so to is the protection of free speech, even that, like Maher's with which I so profoundly disagree.

To be sure, Maher's anti-religion biases can be both insightful, funny and at times incredibly offensive. With respect to Islam in particular, his "punchline" analysis reflects a convenient shallowness that focuses on the most violent and intolerant minority of Salafists, while ignoring the extraordinary diversity, history, and modern external influences on the faith. These external influences include nationalism, poverty, tribalism, regional cultural mores as well as the ongoing political instability hatched by the rapid collapse of colonialism following the World Wars.

However, he has, even when partly incorrect, even when hurtful, catalyzed public debate on crucial civic issues in a way few others can and has willingly engaged in spirited debate with his most outspoken critics, including me. As the Supreme Court noted, if any speech warrants protection in our system, it is controversial speech which some wish to silence:

Accordingly, a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship. Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949).

Principles Over Politics: Let Bill (and others) Speak!

Let me be clear, free speech is a principle that transcends political and religious boundaries and in order to be viable must protect across the viewpoint spectrum. It protects Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's right to speak at Columbia, and my right to invite brilliant Iranian and Lebanese Muslim scholars to speak on my campus. It also protects the right of despicable nut job Islamophobes like Pam Gellar to buy offensive ads on New York buses. This month, illegal sanctions against a Palestinian student group at Montclair State in New Jersey for distributing political leaflets were correctly lifted after a threatened lawsuit. In New York, an opera about the brutal murder of wheelchair bound American Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists went forward, as it should, despite protests.

It is curious that many of the same academics who sincerely protest the revocation of Palestinian Professor Steven Salita's University of Illinois job offer are mum about Maher or are supportive of academic boycotts against Israeli scholars like that of the pathetic American Studies Association. Salita tweeted, among other things: "Zionists: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1948."

Perhaps Salita, himself, has the most passionate argument, not only for his own cause, but for Maher's as well:

Principles of free speech, academic freedom, and shared governance enable faculty and students to ask difficult questions and find answers that challenge conventional wisdom. It is anathema to this tradition to allow the elite to dictate to a public university who gets hired and what ideas are acceptable.

I couldn't agree more. Let Bill speak.

Brian Levin is a graduate of Stanford Law School where he received the Block Civil Liberties Award. He is the co-author of Supreme Court briefs on the First Amendment and the book "The Limits of Dissent".