The University of California, Berkeley administration will not rescind political talk show host Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at December’s commencement despite a student petition and decision by the speaker-selection committee to disinvite him.
According to a letter released Wednesday by the university, a committee called the "Californians," tasked with selecting commencement speakers, convened without the administration and decided to rescind the "Real Time With Bill Maher" host’s invitation after students rallied against his involvement in the event.
“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,” officials wrote.
A Change.org petition launched this week by a student government leader and members of the campus advocacy group Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition chastised Maher as a “a blatant bigot and racist” for comments he made earlier this month on his show. On the program, he described Islam as “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will [f***ing] kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book."
The petition had gathered more than 4,400 signatures by Thursday afternoon.
UC Berkeley officials defended their decision and alluded to the campus’ famous history as the home of the free speech movement in 1964.
“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.”
Maher did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment but took to Twitter Wednesday saying he’d discuss the controversy soon.
“Every news outlet asking me 4 comment on this Berkeley thing but then i remembered: I'VE got a show! And thats where I'll address it, Fri nite,” he tweeted.
Maher is only the latest scheduled commencement speaker to face student pushback.
This spring saw an outstanding number of such protests against commencement speakers at other schools, including successful campaigns to cancel Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers University, International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde at Smith College and former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at Haverford College.