Do Not Withdraw Bill Maher's Invitation to Speak at the December 2014 Commencement

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Do Not Withdraw Bill Maher's Invitation to Speak at the December 2014 Commencement

This petition had 681 supporters

The student body of the University of California at Berkeley consists of a diverse array of talented and engaged individuals who, together with the faculty and staff, contribute to Berkeley’s well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most vibrant intellectual communities.  Berkeley has a long tradition of tolerance, civility, and openness of which the University community is justly proud.  Above all, Berkeley—the home of the Free Speech Movement—boasts a history of welcoming the free and vigorous exchange of ideas that is unrivalled by any other institution of higher education.  As heirs to that proud tradition, we, the undersigned, are concerned that recent actions taken with respect to the University’s invitation of Bill Maher to speak at its December 2014 commencement exercises threaten to undermine the environment of openness to the expression of diverse ideas that lies at the core of the Berkeley intellectual tradition.

We are aware that many of our fellow community members—students, faculty, staff, alumnae/i, and other members of the Berkeley intellectual community—have objected to the invitation extended to Mr. Maher and have demanded that it be revoked.  The petition calling for the revocation of Mr. Maher’s invitation explains that its signatories find some of his statements “offensive” and “dangerous” to the marginalized communities that the University strives to include.  We do not doubt that the signatories are sincere and their distress at the prospect of Mr. Maher’s visit is real.  We do, however, respectfully disagree with their proposal to avoid that distress by rescinding Mr. Maher’s invitation to speak at the December commencement.  We believe that the most effective response to offensive or misguided speech is not forced silence, but rather the response that Berkeley has always embraced:  vigorous, critical engagement by opposing ideas.  We further believe that the entire academy suffers when unpopular or inflammatory ideas are denied a voice simply because their expression may cause offense or emotional pain to others.  We therefore call upon our colleagues to respond to Mr. Maher’s visit not with a call to forced silence, but as an opportunity to raise awareness across campus and beyond as to their own opposing views.

This petition is not intended to express agreement with or endorsement of any statement made by Mr. Maher, whether on the subject of religion or otherwise.  Individually, we may disagree with many of Mr. Maher’s statements; as a public figure, he has taken many controversial positions over the years, some or all of which may well deserve condemnation.  Nor do we necessarily believe that Mr. Maher is worthy of the invitation that the University chose to extend.  But we disagree—vehemently—with the creeping notion, too common in the American academy of late, that mere offense, even revulsion, at the ideas expressed by a public figure constitutes a valid basis on which to demand that figure be disinvited from speaking on campus.  The Spring 2014 commencement season saw a number of high-profile disinvitations on similar grounds; we exhort the University and our fellow community members not to add Berkeley’s name to the ignominious list of academic institutions unwilling to preserve the academy’s most fundamental value—the free exchange of ideas—in the face of popular disapprobation.

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