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 Brandeis rescinded plans to confer an honorary degree on Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the spring of 2014.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.