The Campus Free-Speech Debates Are About Power, Not Sensitivity

The activists who tried to keep Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley lost out, but they still pose a real danger.

Fred Prouser/Reuters

The University of California at Berkeley won’t rescind its invitation to comedian Bill Maher to speak at its December commencement. That’s a welcome change from the too-familiar practice of surrender to would-be campus-speech monitors. Brandeis rescinded plans to confer an honorary degree on Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the spring of 2014. That same year, protesters prevented commencement addresses by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers, Attorney General Eric Holder at the Oklahoma Police Academy, and IMF head Christine Lagarde at Smith.* In 2013, protests thwarted commencement addresses by World Bank chief Bob Zoellick at Swarthmore. The campus free-speech group FIRE has tallied a total of 95 protests of university speaking invitations just since 2009, 39 of which led to the cancelation of the protested event. That’s twice as many protests—and half again as many cancelations—as in the two decades, from 1987 through 2008, FIRE told The Wall Street Journal.

In Maher’s case as in Hirsi Ali’s, the grounds of complaint was the invitee’s attitude toward Islam. Maher criticizes all religion, but he has said especially harsh things about Islam. The Berkeley Muslim-students group, backed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, condemned Maher as a bigot and racist. On his Friday Real Time program, Bill Maher delivered a scathing reply to the campus protesters. He noted the seeming irony that all this was occurring at Berkeley during the 50th anniversary year of the famed Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

Kudos to Maher for fighting back. When campus speech monitors win, they usually do so by creating an atmosphere so hostile that the invited speaker withdraws himself or herself. Commencement speakers are busy people. They accepted the invitation in the first place as an act of public spirit. If they’re not wanted, well, they have other things to do.

The self-removal of the targeted speaker makes life easier for the conflict-averse university administrator. He can simultaneously appease protesters while insisting to skeptical insiders that the university resolutely condemns intimidation and disruption of campus activities. But if the controversial speaker voluntarily withdraws himself or herself—well, there’s nothing an administrator can do in that case, is there? By declining to withdraw, Maher closed this easy avenue of escape. And to its credit, Berkeley responded to Maher’s firmness with equal firmness of its own. On October 29, the administration robustly reaffirmed its commencement invitation:

For many years it has been the responsibility of UC Berkeley undergraduates, through a committee known as the “Californians,” to select speakers for the university’s commencement ceremonies. In August the “Californians” chose Bill Maher as the speaker for the December commencement ceremony. However, last night the “Californians” reconvened without administration participation and came to a decision that the invitation should be rescinded.

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. 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.

Berkeley did the right thing, but it offered the wrong explanation—and that mistaken explanation raises the chances that the next university may do the wrong thing if it faces some combination of a less self-confident speaker, a better-organized protest, or a less strong-willed university leadership.

The Berkeley statement in support of Maher’s commencement address casts the issue as one of content-neutral speech rights. The statement stresses that it regards Maher’s opinions and perspectives as “irrelevant.” Those opinions and perspectives were expressed in constitutionally protected ways, and so the only thing that matters is “his right to express them.” This is stirring stuff, but it’s also seriously misleading. Hundreds of millions of Americans express constitutionally protected opinions and perspectives every day. Almost none of them will ever be invited to deliver a commencement address anywhere.

“Free speech” is the wrong category in which to think about attempted commencement shutdowns. Nobody has a right to be a commencement speaker. Nobody has a right to the rostrum of a university. Nobody has a right to the attention of thousands of students and parents. Indeed, nobody has a right to any particular audience at all: The right to speak freely is always balanced by the right not to pay attention.

More awkwardly still, those agitating to disinvite a commencement speaker will claim they are merely exercising free-speech rights of their own. Petitions, demonstrations, protest—why aren’t those equally to be defended?

Here’s why. When protesters mobilize against an invited university guest, they are not merely expressing disapprobation of a selection. They are threatening the university with embarrassment or worse unless the university yields to their wishes. It’s the university, not the speaker, who is their target. What they want from the university is not the right to be heard, but the right to veto. More exactly: These battles over campus speakers are not battles over rights at all. They are battles over power.

The anti-Maher protesters explicitly demanded this power for themselves: "Do not force us to tolerate the speaker that you selected, without our input, for our event. We demand the power for students to choose the commencement speakers and to reject the university administration’s suggestions.” But as a matter of fact, Berkeley students do choose their own commencements speakers. Invitations are issued by the elected leadership of a student society whose membership is open to all Berkeley students in good academic standing. The Maher protesters wished to over-ride this process—and to claim for their own pressure group the unique right to speak for all Berkeley students.

When small and zealous factions—which may include students, but also may not—assert a right of control over the university’s public spaces, their target is the university itself. Berkeley’s anti-Maher protesters surely understand that barring the highly popular TV host from their commencement ceremony would hardly silence him. Maher will continue to command a large and enthusiastic following—maybe larger and more enthusiastic than ever. What they would have done, had they succeeded, was write new rules for the university itself: rules about what may be said, who may say it, and who decides. The power they were seeking was not power over Bill Maher, but power over a university—a power to be exercised arbitrarily by small, shifting cabals.

When such protesters win, as they won at Rutgers, Oklahoma City, Brandeis, Swarthmore, and Smith, it is not the protested speaker who loses. For most such speakers, cancelation probably comes as a relief from a reluctantly accepted chore. The losers are the universities, which surrender their self-government to these self-appointed commissars of correctness. The disinvited speaker will continue doing or saying the things that ostensibly provoked his protesters. But inside the university, the bounds of independent thought will narrow. New rules will have been imposed upon the whole community by a small group of bullies—and it is precisely those people who lack the fame and success of the disinvited commencement speaker who will most feel the weight of those new rules.

In his Friday TV reply, Bill Maher eloquently told his critics at Berkeley, “It’s not my reputation on the line. It’s yours.” The same words apply to the larger Berkeley community over which the anti-Maher protesters wish to domineer. Berkeley passed its test where other universities failed. But until the Berkeley example again becomes the norm, these tests will continue to recur.

* This post originally stated that Lagarde was scheduled to speak in 2013. We regret the error.