UC Berkeley petition seeks to block Bill Maher speech in row over Islam

Some students at the University of California, Berkeley, call satirist Bill Maher's comments about Islam 'hate speech' and say he should not be given a platform to speak at the December commencement.

Host Bill Maher (r.) and actor Ben Affleck (l.) look on as Sam Harris, author of 'Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,' speaks during 'Real Time With Bill Maher' in Los Angeles Oct. 3.

Students at the University of California, Berkeley, have launched a petition to prevent TV host Bill Maher from delivering the campus's December commencement address. They are outraged by comments Mr. Maher made about Islam on his HBO show "Real Time" earlier this month. 

The petition, launched on the website Change.org, has garnered more than 2,000 signatures. Maher, a stand-up comedian whose show offers often polarizing political satire, has come under fire in recent weeks for a widely publicized debate on his show on Oct. 3. Actor Ben Affleck challenged Maher's statements that fundamentalist views prevail in Islam and that Western liberals fail to criticize this aspect of the religion. Mr. Affleck responded that Maher was wrong to stereotype the second-largest religion in the world on the actions of a minority faction. Affleck called Maher's views "gross and racist." 

The petition was written by Marium Navid, a senator of the university's student group Associated Students of the University of California, and it is supported by the the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition, a campus advocacy group, The Daily Californian reported. 

"It's not an issue of freedom of speech, it's a matter of campus climate," Ms. Navid told the newspaper. "The First Amendment gives him the right to speak his mind, but it doesn't give him the right to speak at such an elevated platform as the commencement. That's a privilege his racist and bigoted remarks don't give him." 

Maher is a staunch atheist who has previously stated that Islam's influence on society is worse than that of other religions. The Berkeley petition lists several examples of what it terms "Bill Maher's hate speech," including a snippet from his debate with Affleck in which he said, "Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia and will ... kill you if you say the wrong thing." 

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, UC system student regent Sadia Saifuddin, who is Muslim, said she and other students are upset by Maher's portrayal of Islam as an intolerant religion that advocates for the death of apostates and resembles the terrorist group Islamic State. 

"I believe there is a fundamental difference between free speech and hate speech, as well as a difference between Maher being allowed to express his views, and being given the honor of giving the keynote address sponsored by the university," Ms. Saifuddin said.

This petition comes at a time when similar protests among students at other schools have targeted scheduled commencement speakers for political or ideological reasons, causing many to withdraw.

  • In May, former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau pulled out from his speaking engagement at the commencement for Haverford College in Pennsylvania after protests citing UC Berkeley's harsh tactics, under him, in breaking up Occupy protests in 2011.
  • That same month, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from her scheduled commencement address at Smith College due to student protests.
  • Also that month, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined to deliver the address at Rutgers University after objections from students. 

The recent trend of blocking commencement speakers has caused some to worry that universities are becoming more intolerant to individuals with outspoken views that challenge the prevailing views held by students. 

"We need more people to come in and raise hell on college campuses and provide challenging ideas and concepts," Ken Paulson, president of Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, told The Christian Science Monitor in May. "By booking someone to speak at your commencement, you're not issuing a blanket endorsement of who they are or what they do ... Given the amount of boring commencement speakers we've all heard, you'd think it would be refreshing to hear someone provocative." 

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