Fifty years ago, almost to the day, a group of students at the University of California, Berkeley, demanded that school administrators recognize their right to freedom of speech and allow political activity on campus. Students swarmed a police car holding a comrade, Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome,” and hundreds of protesters were thrown in jail. The Free Speech Movement of 1964 won, of course, inspiring a wave of student activism throughout the decade and the world.
The heirs of those daring dissidents have decided, however, to reject their legacy—and it’s the university establishment now insisting that intellectual openness remain a hallmark of one of the country’s most famous centers of learning.
In August, the group of Berkeley undergraduates that chooses commencement speakers booked comedian Bill Maher for the December ceremony. Nobody complained about the selection of the man who made the 2008 documentary Religulous, which roundly mocks religious belief, until he got into an argument with the next Batman, Ben Affleck, on October 3. On that night’s episode of his HBO talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the host argued that “liberals need to stand up for liberal principles,” such as “freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities, including homosexuals.” Maher noted, “These are liberal principles that liberals applaud, but then when you say, in the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.”
Affleck certainly did. “It’s gross! It’s racist!” he responded angrily. “How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punish women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches?” Maher took on the question directly. “All these billion people don’t hold any of those pernicious beliefs? That’s just not true, Ben.” He pointed to a Pew poll that found 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims believe the death penalty should apply to Muslims who leave the faith. “There’s a reason why Ayaan Hirsi Ali needs bodyguards 24-7,” Maher said.
The Scrapbook is not in the habit of defending Bill Maher, and may never do so again, but he’s the only late-night talker—a group regularly asked to give commencement speeches—who discusses substantive ideas on his show, and with people who hold differing opinions. That, to some Berkeley students, makes him “dangerous.” One started a petition at Change.org demanding that Maher be barred from the ceremony. “It is the responsibility of the University of California to protect all students and uphold a standard of civility,” the petition declared, giving such examples of the comedian’s “hate speech” as: “You have to understand, you have to embrace the values of Western civilization. They’re not just different, they are better.” The first person to sign the petition was Sadia Saifuddin, the student regent of the University of California system. “I cannot stand for any action that makes our students feel unsafe,” she wrote.
Over 4,000 people—not all of them Berkeley students—signed the online petition, sending fear into the hearts of the undergraduates who’d booked Maher. That group decided to rescind its invitation. The next day, the university sent them—and all enemies of intellectual freedom—a stinging rebuke. “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,” it said in a statement.
Nobody gets the final word on this, of course, not even Bill Maher, if he manages to be heard at Berkeley in December—the conversation will continue. But the last words here go to Eiynah, a Pakistan-born Toronto writer and illustrator who received death threats after publishing the children’s book My Chacha Is Gay. “What you did by screaming ‘racist!’ was shut down a conversation that many of us have been waiting to have,” she wrote in an open letter to Affleck. “Most Muslims choose to interpret scripture in a peaceful way, but that doesn’t mean the raw material isn’t there for those who choose the path of violence. That material must be addressed.”