Bill Maher can be offensive. As a practicing Catholic, I will admit to being offended by some of his statements concerning both religion and the Catholic Church. As an American, I was also offended by his statements (which he later clarified) referring to the United States as cowardly in the days after 9/11.
But regardless of whether or not some of his remarks are objectionable, the Real Time with Bill Maher host has the right to make such statements and shouldn’t be disinvited to speak at a commencement ceremony because of them.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening at the University of Berkeley in California. Maher was invited to give the school’s December commencement address this year but according to CNN.com, Berkeley students are “petitioning to have him removed as their 2014 fall commencement speaker.” Shortly after Maher debated Ben Affleck on his show about the nation of Islam, a Change.org petition was set up to protest Maher’s upcoming address. According to CNN, the petition states that “Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for…we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment.”
While it’s true that Maher has made a few controversial remarks about Islam and other religions (quite a few, actually), none of them are reason enough for the university to cancel his speech.
Freedom of speech is a right given to all Americans citizens in the first amendment of the Constitution. It is a right worth defending each and every day because without it, one of this country’s greatest freedoms would cease to exist. It was only a few short months ago that the film The Giver depicted what a world with controlled language (and without freedom of speech) would look like. It’s the world that George Orwell depicted in the classic novel 1984. It’s a world of government control and manipulation and one where different opinions are eliminated, not celebrated.
Unfortunately, the debate over freedom of speech is a painfully familiar one. Seemingly every year, there are controversies surrounding commencement speakers and whether or not certain people should be allowed to speak at graduation ceremonies. In 2014, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled her graduation speech at Rutgers University because of the controversy surrounding her speech while in 2009, the University of Vermont cancelled Ben Stein’s commencement speech after students protested against his views on intelligent design.
If we are offended by the fact that Rice was forced to withdraw from giving her speech and that Stein was disinvited from offering his, we must also object to the fact that people are trying to push Bill Maher out as well. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to irritate, annoy and offend people through the use of rhetoric and we should defend it at every opportunity.
Bill Maher addressed the controversy surrounding his address on his show Friday, where he debated a Muslim panelist who argued that Maher shouldn’t be allowed to give his speech. Fortunately, as Maher noted, the school is “saying what I’d hoped they’d say all along, which is ‘We’re liberals. We’re supposed to like free speech.’” Conservatives are supposed to like it too.
There are some liberals who are fortunately defending Maher but both sides of the political aisle should be supporting the comedian. Maher is not a conservative (and sadly, conservatives are often overlooked as commencement speakers) but he is an advocate for free speech. Each week, he hosts both conservatives and liberals on his program to debate the issues of the day. It’s undeniable that he can be controversial but being controversial doesn’t mean that you lose the freedom to speak out.
I hope that the students and people who sign the petition against Maher’s speech realize that.