More than 2,500 people have singed a petition protesting Bill Maher's appearance at Cal's December commencement. Photo: Bill Maher
More than 4,000 people have signed a petition protesting Bill Maher’s forthcoming appearance at a December commencement at UC Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Bill Maher
More than 4,000 people have signed a petition protesting Bill Maher’s forthcoming appearance at a December commencement at UC Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Bill Maher

Hours after a student group uninvited Bill Maher to speak at UC Berkeley’s December commencement, Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks invited him back, citing his constitutionally protected right to free speech.

“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,” the university said in a prepared statement.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. Photo: John Blaustein
UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. Photo: John Blaustein

“For that reason Chancellor Dirks has decided that the invitation will stand, and he looks forward to welcoming Mr. Maher to the Berkeley campus. 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Maher’s controversial remarks about radical Islam were not the reason his invitation was rescinded, even though more than 4,000 people signed a petition charging Maher with Islamaphobia, according to Gina Hwang, the student director for The Californians, the student group that invited Maher. But the group decided Tuesday night to rescind the invitation because they were concerned that Maher was becoming the focal point of commencement when the focus should be on students and their families.

“The main element of the graduation is the students and family, not the speaker,” said Hwang.

Moreover, Hwang said she and others felt broadsided by the university’s actions on Wednesday afternoon. The Californians met with University Relations Tuesday morning and were told they had the final decision and that Dirks would not get involved. After The Californians voted Tuesday night to rescind the invitation to Maher, University Relations asked the group to hold off any announcement until it could be coordinated with the university. Then Dirks released his statement — without informing The Californians ahead of time.

Hwang said she does understand that Dirks is thinking about the entire university rather than just the graduation ceremony.

“The Chancellor’s focus in the whole of UC Berkeley, ” said Hwang. “It is the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement so he has to focus on everything.”

In his prepared statement, Dirks suggested that The Californians had not followed university protocol, a contention that Hwang denied.

“The unfortunate events surrounding the selection of this year’s winter commencement speaker demonstrate the need to develop a new policy for managing commencement ceremonies,” Dirks said in the statement. “The new process will ensure that these events are handled in a manner commensurate with our values and enduring commitment to free speech. We will be announcing the new policy as soon as it is ready.”

Maher has not yet commented on the controversy, but announced on his Facebook page that he would talk about it on Friday’s show.

“Every news outlet asking me for a comment on this #Berkeley thing but then I remembered: I’VE got a show! And that’s where I’ll address it, Friday nite,” wrote Maher.

The Californians invited Maher in August, but two students from Cal started to circulate a petition to ban him after the Oct. 3 show of Real Time with Bill Maher, which is broadcast on HBO. In that show, Maher compared Muslims to the Mafia and suggested they regularly kill dissenters. He did not differentiate between radical Muslims and the one billion Muslims who are not extremists.

Ben Affleck, an actor who was a guest on the show, disagreed strongly with Maher’s characterizations.

More than 2,500 protest Bill Maher’s speech at Cal (10.28.14)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...