SAN DIEGO – The controversy involving comedian Bill Maher speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, and the shameful way the school’s administration handled it revealed an ugly double standard about free speech on university campuses. And the uproar taught all of us a semester’s worth of valuable lessons.
It turns out that speech is much “freer” for liberals than for conservatives, that those on the left have more latitude to offend minorities and that others who shrug off the offenses aren’t really that interested in the values they force on the rest of us, such as tolerance, diversity, kindness and respect for others.
The story begins, as these tales often do, with someone saying something offensive, in this case, Maher.
Consider his recent remarks on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” about whether Islamic State radicals are representative of the estimated 2 billion Muslims who inhabit the planet.
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“If vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea, or drawing a cartoon, or writing a book, or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with (the Islamic State), it has too much in common with (the group),” Maher said.
The host also characterized Islam as “the only religion that acts like the Mafia that will … kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” He mentioned a poll of Egyptians that he claimed found “90 percent of them believe death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion.”
That’s certainly painting with a broad brush. Imagine a conservative Republican making such sweeping generalizations about Mexican immigrants, or young black men, or gays and lesbians.
How do you suppose this sort of thing would go over at a liberal bastion like UC Berkeley?
Answer: The same way that Maher’s remarks about Islam went over with the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition on campus.
The group started an online petition drive calling the comedian a “blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for” and someone who “perpetuates a dangerous learning environment” by promoting division. The petition, which quickly racked up more than 4,000 signatures, demanded that the university rescind an invitation for Maher to speak at the school’s midyear commencement ceremony on Dec. 20.
The Californians, a campus organization that helps choose commencement speakers, voted to withdraw the invitation.
But UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks pulled rank and issued a statement defending Maher’s right to free speech.
Dirks insisted that his decision “does not constitute an endorsement,” only the recognition that “this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative.” The chancellor declared that, petition or not, the invitation would stand and that he “looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus.”
Did I mention that Maher is also an outspoken liberal Democrat who uses his show to bash conservatives and Republicans, and who contributed $1 million to President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign?
It’s impossible to imagine that the president of any liberal arts university in America would have gone to these lengths to preserve an invitation for a “provocative” speaker from the right.
Earlier this year, I don’t recall Rutgers University President Robert Barchi intervening when students and faculty on his campus protested the invitation to Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, to be a commencement speaker. The uproar got so loud that Rice eventually backed out because she feared the controversy would detract from the students’ graduation festivities.
Where was the left’s respect for free speech then? Do liberals even know what they believe in anymore? It all seems situational.
And back at UC Berkeley, what happened to what liberals told us in the 1990s about the need for hate speech codes on campus because – free speech notwithstanding – words can wound?
One solution could have been to invite Maher to make two talks: the commencement speech, and then a debate with an expert on Islamic studies.
Muslim students and others on campus were wounded by Maher’s words, and they expected to get a fair hearing for their concerns at a university that prides itself for espousing and protecting liberal traditions.
The chancellor didn’t give them one. And for that, shame on him. And shame on UC Berkeley.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.