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UC Berkeley chancellor upholds Bill Maher speech despite protests

UC Berkeley chancellor upholds Bill Maher speech despite protests
Bill Maher in "Real Time With Bill Maher." (Janet Van Ham / HBO)

UC Berkeley's administration is insisting that a campus speech by Bill Maher will proceed as scheduled in December despite opposition from students who say the offer should be rescinded to protest what they allege were anti-Muslim statements by the political satirist.

Citing Maher's right to free speech, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks said in a statement that "the invitation will stand, and [I look] forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus."

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The statement noted that the decision "does not constitute an endorsement" of any of Maher's views although it supports the television personality's 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," the statement said.

Maher, a comedian, author and host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," was asked to speak at UC Berkeley's mid-year commencement on Dec. 20. But protesters wanted Maher to be disinvited because of statements he made on his Oct. 6 show that some believe portrayed Islam as a violent faith; the protestors say he suggested most Muslims believe that anyone who leaves the religion should be executed.

Representatives for Maher did not return calls and emails seeking his reaction to Dirks' decision and whether Maher intends to keep the speaking engagement. A campus spokeswoman said the school is assuming that Maher is still participating.

The Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition on campus and other groups started an online petition drive seeking to block the speech and calling Maher's comments racist, divisive and offensive to many students.

UC Berkeley should not "invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment," the petition said in part. The campaign's organizers could not be reached Wednesday night about whether they will protest at Maher's speech.

The Californians, a campus organization that helps choose commencement speakers, voted to rescind the invitation. But leaders said they took that position not because of Maher's views but because the debate about his presence would have harmed the celebratory nature of the graduation event.

Gina Hwang, student director of the group, said she thought there would be "some disappointment" about Dirks' decision to maintain the Maher invitation.

Dirks said he wanted to review the process of choosing commencement speakers to ensure the events match the school's "enduring commitment to free speech."

The debate at UC Berkeley comes a few months after similar protests about the past activities or political views of scheduled commencement speakers led to speaker withdrawals around the nation.

Former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau declined an invitation to speak at Haverford College in Pennsylvania because of student protests over the actions of UC campus police who roughed up Occupy activists in 2011. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined an offer to speak at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde withdrew as the commencement speaker at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Follow me @larrygordonlat.

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